Understanding political parties

By the end of 2019 there will have been elections in at least 20 African countries, with 15 more planned to take place in 2020. Millions of people across the continent will be going to vote – many for the first time in their lives.

Voters will have to choose between political parties which each have their own ideas about how the country should be governed. So before voters go to the polls it is important to understand what these parties are, why they exist, and how to choose between them.


Democratic nations are ones which give its population the opportunity to choose how they are governed. In representative democracies, people do this by electing candidates who represent their local community to sit in parliament.

Parliament is the legislative body of government. This means that its members decide the laws of the country. Its members occupy a number of parliamentary seats. Each seat represents a specific area of the country, known as a constituency.

During elections, candidates try to win the votes of people in their constituency by presenting a vision of how the country should be governed. They outline a set of policies they would introduce and support once elected.


A political party is an organised group that has a common set of ideas regarding the governance of the country. They put forward candidates for election in the hope of having enough members of parliament to vote through policies which reflect the common aims of the party.

The policies that a party candidate supports can be found in documents called manifestos, which are central to the identity of parties. Furthermore, parties can elect leaders and have their own memberships made up of people who help build support for the party across the country. Members often pay membership fees, which helps the party make money.


Parties are important as they make a democracy more efficient. They simplify the election process for the voters who can choose between a small number of parties, as opposed to an enormous number of individual candidates.

Parties allow governments to form, as all party members tend to vote the same way to implement the policies they set out in their manifestos.

The process of debating ideas and creating new laws is made faster as members are organised more effectively in parliament. Furthermore, having well-managed parties in parliament prevents one group of people having too much power in government.


The danger of political parties is that they can cause divisions within society. This is shown by the worrying amount of violence that has accompanied recent elections not just in Africa, but across the world.

Therefore, it is important to judge political parties on the right things: the ideas they promote and the candidates that represent them.

Democracies allow people with diverse opinions to come together and have a say in how they are governed. It is by respecting the people and parties with views different to our own that this process can best be protected.



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