Studying the role of institutions and their evolution often helps us better understand political and economic development in our countries.
One such key institution is the Legislature, which plays a critical role in democratic consolidation by providing a stable system of horizontal accountability.
Legislatures craft legislation, pass laws, exercise oversight of the Executive branch and thereby provide the institutional mechanism which allows societies to perform representative governance on a daily basis. Individual legislators articulate competing interests and try to influence the policymaking process.
They also perform an important function—that of constituency service, i.e. they may regularly visit their constituencies and meet their constituents and address local needs and may even be involved in providing various types of public goods to their constituents through development projects.
The extent of legislative capacity and power, of course, varies greatly from country to country. In some countries, the Legislature remains relatively weak despite multiparty politics, regular elections and even when ruling parties lose elections.
But in other countries, the Legislature has functioned effectively as a check on the Executive branch of government as well as provided important contributions to the policymaking and policy implementation processes. But legislatures and legislative capacity in developing countries have not received the kind of scholarly attention that they deserve. This is indeed surprising.
In his excellent book, Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies (Cambridge University Press, 2019), Ken Ochieng’ Opalo explores how the adaptation of inherited colonial legislative institutional forms and practices continue to structure and influence contemporary politics and policy outcomes in Africa. He contrasts the records of legislative performance and discusses why the legislatures in some emerging democracies have enhanced their capacity and power while those in others have not.
He also examines how and under what conditions democratic legislatures emerge in countries that have had strong autocratic foundations.
The study build on detailed information on bills introduced in the Kenyan and Zambian parliaments in addition to budget allocations, the number of legislative sessions and the powers accorded to individual members of Parliament. Opalo finds that the introduction of competitive multiparty electoral institutions strengthened the Kenyan legislature but not the Zambian one.
A strong Kenyan legislature evolved over time, relying on support from the executive as well as experienced and influential legislators, who functioned as mentors for younger legislators. Opalo’s study thus makes a strong case for strengthening legislatures in emerging democracies. A key conclusion in the book is that institutional development takes time and cannot be rushed.
He also argues that attempts to strengthen legislatures in such contexts should not just be limited to technical assistance and organisational capacity building but also include the political empowerment of legislators.