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Identity voting and the regional census in Malawi

Karen Ferree and Jeremy Horowitz

Paper presented at "The Micro-Foundations of Mass Politics in Africa" Conference, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, 12-13 May 2007

May 2007

SARPN acknowledges Afrobarometer as a source of this document:
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Recent election results in Malawi follow a predictable pattern: voters in the northern part of the country support the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) or its successors; voters in the central region line up behind the Malawi Congress Party (MCP); and voters in the south vote for the United Democratic Front (UDF) or other parties running on a “southern” profile. This pattern emerged in Malawi’s first democratic elections (1994), and continued in 1999 and 2004. Consequently, Malawi’s elections resemble a “regional” census: where a voter lives (her region) predicts quite strongly how she will vote. Although there are many possible microlevel explanations for census elections, the most prominent remains Horowitz’s expressive voting hypothesis, which argues that ethnic voters use their vote to register their identities as members of groups. Voting is therefore an act of identity expression, not a careful weighing of policy positions or performance evaluations. Elections become “head counts” in which ethnic demographics predetermine outcomes, creating permanent winners and losers and jeopardizing the stability of democracy as a whole.

The goal of this paper is to evaluate the extent to which expressive voting can explain Malawi’s regional census. Specifically, are Malawians who hold regional identities more likely to be regional partisans than Malawians who identify differently? We seek not to wholly reject or accept the identity hypothesis, but rather to plumb the boundaries of its explanatory power: How far can it go in explaining the census? Are there regions of the country that it explains better than others? Do other non-identity based factors (the standard set demographic and cognitive factors like gender, education, and political knowledge as well as impressions of government performance and beliefs about the inclusiveness of government) also explain voting?

To preview our results, we find that identity has variable effects on patterns of partisanship. In the central region of Malawi, voters who identify with the predominant regional tribe (the Chewa) are significantly more likely than voters who identify with non-regional tribes or voters who do not identify along tribal lines at all to conform to the regional voting pattern. This finding supports the identity hypothesis. However, in the northern and southern regions of the country, we find little support for the identity voting hypothesis: voters who identify with regionally based tribes in these areas are no more or less likely to be regional partisans than voters who either identify with non-regional tribes or voters who do not identify tribally. Furthermore, in all regions of the country, views about the president (UDF in 1994 and 1999) and government exert a powerful and systematic effect on behavior: In the north and center, voters who have positive evaluations of the president’s performance and/or feel cared for by him and his government are much less likely to be regional partisans. In the south (home of the ruling UDF), the opposite is true.

Our results suggest three conclusions: First, identity voting might explain the behavior of some voters some of the time, but it is not a sufficient explanation for the census outcome as a whole. Second, identity voting is a variable, not a constant: it emerges in some contexts and time periods but not others. And third, standard “politics as usual” explanations exert a more powerful and systematic effect on voting in Malawi than identity. If we want to explain Malawi’s census, we must therefore explain why voters in the northern and center regions of the country are less impressed with the president’s performance and feel less cared for by him and his government than residents of the south. We speculate that the source of these patterns lies in politics past and present: flows of patronage under Hasting Banda’s long rule explain why identity voting emerges in the center but not north and south, and current flows of patronage explain why voters in the north and center feel less enthusiastic about the southern based UDF government.

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