57 min

How Strong Legislatures Emerge, with Ken Opalo Scope Conditions Podcast

    • Government

In this episode, we talk about how strong legislatures emerge. When we think about what makes a political system a democracy, we usually think of one key ingredient as being an elected legislature that can constrain the executive: an elected assembly that serves as a check on executive whim and has the ultimate say on core matters of public policy. But where do strong legislatures come from?

As political scientists, we commonly tell ourselves an origin story -- first set out by Douglass North and Barry Weingast -- about the emergence of parliamentary strength in 17th century England that goes something like this: the monarchy needed to borrow money. But before wealthy elites were willing to lend to the Crown, they wanted to make sure that they would be paid back. Thus, parliamentary prominence arose as a way for the Crown to credibly tie its own hands and for elites to hold the executive to its commitments. A strong parliament emerged from the underlying balance of bargaining power between the sovereign and elites.

Our guest today, Dr. Ken Opalo, an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, argues that this paradigmatic origin story does not travel very well beyond Europe. In his 2019 book, Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies, Ken examines how strong and weak legislatures emerged as African nations transitioned from autocracy to multi-party democracy. The book centers on the comparison of Kenya and Zambia, two countries that democratized in the early 1990s, shifting from single-party to multi-party rule. Both countries had had open legislatures during the postcolonial, authoritarian period, legislatures that are now elected through multi-party competition. But while multi-party elections turned Kenya’s legislature into a strong assembly that frequently bucks the president, Zambia’s democratic legislature follows the president’s lead about as frequently as it did during the authoritarian period.

We talk with Ken about why democracy generated a strong legislature in one country but continued executive dominance in the other. This is, fundamentally, a conversation about how to theorize and study institutional development as democracy emerges in postcolonial settings. Ken explains what is distinctive about such contexts and why models of the rise of executive constraint derived from the European experience do such a poor job of explaining outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa. We also talk about why scholars have missed key institutional variation across African autocracies: variation that is not picked up in standard cross-national datasets but that has crucial implications for legislative development once democracy takes hold.

The scholarly works discussed in this episode can be found on our website.

In this episode, we talk about how strong legislatures emerge. When we think about what makes a political system a democracy, we usually think of one key ingredient as being an elected legislature that can constrain the executive: an elected assembly that serves as a check on executive whim and has the ultimate say on core matters of public policy. But where do strong legislatures come from?

As political scientists, we commonly tell ourselves an origin story -- first set out by Douglass North and Barry Weingast -- about the emergence of parliamentary strength in 17th century England that goes something like this: the monarchy needed to borrow money. But before wealthy elites were willing to lend to the Crown, they wanted to make sure that they would be paid back. Thus, parliamentary prominence arose as a way for the Crown to credibly tie its own hands and for elites to hold the executive to its commitments. A strong parliament emerged from the underlying balance of bargaining power between the sovereign and elites.

Our guest today, Dr. Ken Opalo, an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, argues that this paradigmatic origin story does not travel very well beyond Europe. In his 2019 book, Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies, Ken examines how strong and weak legislatures emerged as African nations transitioned from autocracy to multi-party democracy. The book centers on the comparison of Kenya and Zambia, two countries that democratized in the early 1990s, shifting from single-party to multi-party rule. Both countries had had open legislatures during the postcolonial, authoritarian period, legislatures that are now elected through multi-party competition. But while multi-party elections turned Kenya’s legislature into a strong assembly that frequently bucks the president, Zambia’s democratic legislature follows the president’s lead about as frequently as it did during the authoritarian period.

We talk with Ken about why democracy generated a strong legislature in one country but continued executive dominance in the other. This is, fundamentally, a conversation about how to theorize and study institutional development as democracy emerges in postcolonial settings. Ken explains what is distinctive about such contexts and why models of the rise of executive constraint derived from the European experience do such a poor job of explaining outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa. We also talk about why scholars have missed key institutional variation across African autocracies: variation that is not picked up in standard cross-national datasets but that has crucial implications for legislative development once democracy takes hold.

The scholarly works discussed in this episode can be found on our website.

57 min

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