In many cases of state-led land reform, governments allocate land but withhold formal property rights from recipients. When do leaders grant property rights to landholders? We argue that land rights are a strategic distributive good that leaders conservatively and selectively relinquish in response to popular pressures. Using micro-level data from Kenya–where successive governments have distributed nearly 10% of the country’s arable land–we find that leaders under electoral regimes are more willing to formalize rights those under autocratic regimes, and further, that the logic of land formalization changes with regime type. Whereas autocrats prioritize land formalization among core supporters, elites facing elections prioritize swing voters. Further, even where the state formalizes land rights, the relative social status of allottees helps explain variation in the acquisition of a title deed. The paper demonstrates how property rights are not only a function of a state’s capacity, but leaders’ political incentives.
Discussant: Nicolas Lippolis (Oxford)