Previous analyses of African politics have mistaken parties’ dearth of position taking on issues as an absence of substantive electoral debate. The authors demonstrate that political parties tackle substantive issues during African elections, but generally voice them through valence appeals rather than by staking out distinct positions. The authors theorize that uncertainty, coupled with the single-party heritage and the elite dominance of African electoral politics, leads parties to employ valence discourse in their national election campaigns. With evidence from 950 newspaper articles during seven election cycles in African countries, the authors show that politicians predominantly use valence discourse when discussing political issues in the period approaching elections. They find tentative evidence that opposition actors are more likely to take positions than incumbents, and that civil society is more likely to raise position issues than political parties. This contribution aims to enrich the debate on electoral issues in Africa, but also draw greater attention to the potential impact of valence discourse on party systems in a comparative context.
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