Still no alternative? Popular views of the opposition in Southern Africa’s one-party dominant regimes

Still no alternative? Popular views of the opposition in Southern Africa’s one-party dominant regimes

Dominant party systems in Southern Africa differ widely in the extent and nature of this dominance, in their overall democratic quality, as well as in public attitudes toward the political opposition. But while there is widespread support for multiparty politics, opposition parties clearly face major obstacles to obtaining majority support in the near future.
 
Five Southern African countries have democracies dominated by parties that emerged from liberation movements and have governed since independence: Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
 
This paper uses Afrobarometer survey data to analyse popular attitudes toward political opposition parties in these countries. Do citizens support multiparty politics? What are the trends in levels of citizen support for the political opposition? Do citizens believe that opposition parties present a viable alternative to the ruling party? Given the importance of public opinion in maintaining party dominance, findings offer important insights for scholars of democracy in Africa as well as for opposition parties in these countries.
 
Key findings:
  • about seven in 10 citizens in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe support multiparty competition, compared to only a slim majority (56%) of Mozambicans. On average across all five countries, this support has increased from 55% in 2002/2003 to 67% in 2014/2015
  • however, only minorities endorse an opposition “watchdog” role in Parliament, ranging from 16% of Batswana to 32% of Mozambicans. Even citizens who self-identify as opposition supporters are more likely to say the opposition should collaborate with the government in order to develop the country
  • on average, trust in opposition parties increased significantly in the five countries between 2002 (16%) and 2015 (38%), although it remains well below the levels of trust in the ruling party (56% on average). Public trust in opposition parties is higher than average among citizens with post-secondary education and those living under secure material conditions (both 43%)
  • the proportion of citizens who feel “close to” an opposition party is highest in Botswana (36%), followed by South Africa (34%), Zimbabwe (28%), Namibia (24%), and Mozambique (20%). Affiliation with opposition parties is higher among urban residents, men, citizens aged under 56 years, and those with at least a secondary education
  • while levels of trust in opposition parties are similar in Southern African countries with dominant party systems and those with competitive party systems, there is a significant difference in trust in the ruling party (56% vs. 40%). And citizens of countries with competitive party systems are significantly less likely to self-identify as ruling-party supporters (16% vs. 44% in dominant party systems)
  • among citizens in the five countries with dominant party systems, Namibians are most likely to believe that the opposition presents a viable alternative vision and plan for the country (52%), followed by Mozambicans (45%), Batswana (44%), South Africans (43%), and Zimbabweans (37%). On average, this perception is higher among urban, male, younger, and better-educated citizens
  • only small minorities of Batswana, Mozambicans, Namibians, South Africans, and Zimbabweans believe that opposition parties are most able to address fighting corruption (24%), creating jobs (18%), controlling prices (16%), and improving health services (15%). And although six in 10 (60%) citizens across the five countries say their government is doing “fairly badly” or “very badly” at handling the most important problems facing their country, only 36% believe that another political party could do a better job of addressing them
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