ELECTORAL SYSTEMS IN AN ETHNICALLY DIVIDED SOCIETY


By Melanie Emr
Staff Writer

In a society emerging from autocratic and authoritarian rule, a democratic power-sharing institution is often “prescribed” to promote moderation in an ethnically cleaved society by mandating minority representation in the legislature. When the new constitution is being drafted for societies emerging from civil war, it is vital that the drafters institute the most effective type of electoral system, since the electoral system itself is the most powerful tool for maintaining peace in this postwar society (Horowitz 1). Seeing as how Proportional Representation (PR) electoral systems are most closely linked to power-sharing institutions, Arend Lijphart’s consociationalism model theorizes that it is the primary electoral mechanism for bringing minority groups into elected office (Norris 107). Analyses presented by Pippa Norris, Arend Lijphart and Donald Horowitz examine if electoral mechanisms related to power sharing will successfully promote democratic ideals of minority political representation and societal stability in a divided society, as postulated by the consociational model of effective democracy.

Consociational theory implies that power-sharing electoral systems will reduce ethnic tensions and promote accommodation among ethnic groups. Lijphart argues that PR plays an essential role in a consociational constitution. Seeing as how the number of legislative seats reflects the number of votes won by each party, each party is equally represented (Horowitz 4). Lijphart claims that PR enables minorities to be equally represented in society and incites party proliferation, providing the basis for minority compromise through the necessary formation of coalitions. Norris presents a plethora of statistically convincing evidence that indicates how PR electoral systems have produced more democratic regimes than majoritarian systems, which supports the consociational argument. In comparing homogenous and heterogeneous societies through multivariate analyses and the Freedom House Democratic indicator, majoritarian elections produced higher democracy in homogenous societies and PR elections produced higher democracy In divided societies. Reserved seats for minority groups in legislature has increased the level of democracy for 29 countries (Norris 116-7). Yet correlation between PR and democracy may be due to other factors, like promoting higher voter turnout, without producing societal cooperation. In order for a democratic regime to be sustainable in a divided society, it must promote societal unification through cooperative and communicative mechanisms to break the ethnic divide.

The consociational theory argues that countries using Positive Action strategies and PR electoral systems are democratically most successful. PA strategies include reserving seats in the legislature for minority groups in order to engrain their political representation. This ensures minority security, relieving the fear of underrepresentation in parliament. However, the New Zealand case reveals how achieving minority representation in the legislature may in fact make ethnicity more salient and reinforce societal divisions (Norris 123). New Zealand’s path to electoral reform began by abandoning single-member, “winner-take-all” districts and plurality elections (first-past-the-post), and instead adopting a combined dependent Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP). Parties win seats if they reach the low voter threshold of five percent. Positive Action strategies are employed to reserve parliamentary seats for the Maori, an indigenous group recognized as having special cultural rights. Asians and Pacific Islanders were accorded political parties. However, intercommunity cooperation did not ensue as predicted by consociational theory. Rather, ethnicity was made politically salient with the emergence of the opposition New Zealand First party, as it polarized “whites” against the “rest” of society. This party advocates anti-immigration laws and economic and cultural nationalism, namely based on “white” supremacy and ethnic inferiority (Norris 128-9).

Horowitz argues that power-sharing electoral institutions may not succeed in promoting ethnic accommodation. Primarily, the assumption that multiple parties will emerge in a society and produce the need to form coalitions, the basis of interethnic compromise, cannot occur in a demographically disproportional context. The primary critique of PR is that it may actually reinforce ethnic divides and community rivalries (Norris 109). According to consociational theory, PR creates multiparty systems in which “no party has a majority of parliamentary seats,” which may create the need to form multiparty coalitions in order to govern (Lijphart 93).

However, this “need” to form multiparty coalitions is just an assumption, as the plurality of parties oftentimes depends on the willingness of the majority party to share power with opposing parties. To reinforce this assumption, PR can empower ethnic rivalry when one ethnic group comprises the majority of society, since this majority must gain a proportional majority of seats. Horowitz explains how Robert Mugabe and the Shona in Zimbabwe pooled minority blacks (who formed the majority population) together, giving his party a majority of seats so he could govern alone. This was despite disproportionally represented white and Ndebele opposition, who became the opposition parties to the majority party black Shona government (Horowitz 5).

Consociational theory did not account for a long history of white domination and a segregated society, causing a ruling party to emerge and create a power concentrated government, dooming democratic reform. Thus, before employing power sharing electoral systems into a severely divided society, it is imperative to take into account both the demographics and historical context of colonialism of the minorities in a divided society.

Assuming that power-sharing enables the formation of coalitions, consociational theory cannot ensure that ethnic groups will compromise when they come from a long history of severe repression and opposition. At the center of Horowitz’s critique is a claim that coalition-building is necessary, but not sufficient for intergroup accommodation. The “key” to intergroup accommodation is “the incentive to compromise and not merely the incentive to coalesce” (Lijphart 93). Consociational theory assumes that, given the political opportunity for interaction and representation, ethnically divided communities will set aside their geographical, racial and class-oriented differences deeply entrenched in war-torn culture. Lijphart agrees, claiming “coalescence and compromise are distinct” (Lijphart 93).

Horowitz claims that the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system presents a proportional substitute to the Alternative Vote (AV) that would deliver a more secure trajectory toward achieving democratic stability than the more common list PR. STV is similar to AV in that the voting process entails that voters rank individual candidates depending on their individual preferences (Lijphart 98). Unlike AV, it is not majoritarian but a PR system in which candidates need not reach a majority of votes for election but need a quota based on the number of seats available in a constituency. Voters cast ballots for candidates, not parties, in order of preference. In contrast, list-system PR requires that votes be cast for a single party. Thus, where parties are ethnically based, there is no way to transfer votes across ethnic lines, concentrating votes within an entrenched group ideology (Horowitz 7). Horowitz’s case study of Northern Ireland demonstrates how STV should have favored accommodation more than list-system PR, yet failed to do so due to its weak incentives to pool votes across ethnic boundaries.

Under STV conditions, Catholic parties and candidates should have made interethnic vote-pooling agreements for second and third choice of supporters of Protestant parties and candidates, and vice-versa. However, the incentives to pool votes across the religious divide were weak because political candidates would lose more votes by appearing “soft” on issues of religious divide than they would gain by appealing to other communities (Horowitz 9). In this case, PR is ineffective in delivering coalitions and compromise in deeply cleaved societies. Because consociational theory regards ethnic identities as singular rather than affected by other social and political cleavages like religion, it does not take into account deeply entrenched political interests that inhibit intergroup accommodation (Horowitz 174/Norris 104).

Horowitz proposes a power-concentrating electoral system that will encourage parties to seek racial and ethnic inclusion and intergroup compromise. This can be accomplished through interethnic vote-pooling incentives, an exchange of votes by respective supporters of two parties. (Horowitz 4/9). The Northern Ireland case reveals that the result of interethnic accommodation can only be accomplished if interethnic vote-pooling is made a “positive-sum” transaction. Thus, the electoral system must be used to “change the behavior of ethnically or racially-based parties” (Horowitz 11). The Alternative Vote system is a majoritarian electoral system that requires winning candidates and parties gain an absolute voter majority (Norris 110). The low voter threshold of PR gives political candidates less of an incentive to go out of their ethnic communities to pool votes, since they only need a minimal percentage of the vote to become district elect whereas AV requires a higher majority threshold. Thus, Horowitz argues, AV gives political parties a greater incentive to get more votes, providing the need to branch out to other ethnic communities.

Lijphart, however, rejects AV as a purveyor of democracy, claiming its equivalence to FPTP, the “democracy killer” (Lijphart 96). Like FPTP, the use of AV as an electoral system is closely linked to the election of an executive presidency, a power-concentrating institution that has no promise of reconciliation. The majoritarian system gets the largest party to win two-thirds of parliamentary seats without a need for coalition partners, whereas coalition partners could be needed in PR systems where the largest party wins less than a majority of seats (44 percent) (Lijphart 97). Lijphart notes that AV is not conducive to multipartyism and requires a multiparty system without a majority party, an unrealistic situation. If a party can win on first preferences, this makes second preferences irrelevant, dooming the representation of other parties (Lijphart 95). Also, it is harder for a minority to be represented by members of its own group in AV than in PR (Lijphart 96). AV is infrequently used, so little to no case studies exist of its implementation. Thus, I can neither deny nor prove the claims presented by Lijphart.

These case studies reveal that the type of PA mechanisms and power-sharing electoral system employed in a divided society will only succeed in producing democratic stability and interethnic compromise if socio-political context is taken into account in drafting the new constitution. Cooperation amongst divided communities is difficult because each community is influenced differently by radical political developments like race, class, religion and even gender. Although electoral mechanisms can create multi-ethnic parties, they cannot ensure “the internal democracy of parties” (Lothe 100). I am more convinced that power-sharing electoral systems and Positive Action mechanisms serve to politicize ethnicity rather than create a unified society devoted to promoting and maintaining human rights and equal political representation for all. Consociationalism gives ethnic leaders incentives to address issues differentiating ethnic groups rather than “issues of common interest” (Lothe 100). Electoral systems that create multi-ethnic parties eliminate such incentives. Politicians forced to address struggles undergone by diverse members of the population must compromise to fulfill promises, creating unification and accommodation.

Works Cited

Horowitz, Donald. Ch 5. “Electoral Systems for A Divided Society” in a Democratic Africa? Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society. 163-203.

Lijphart, Arend. “The Alternative Vote: A Realistic alternative for South Africa?” Politikon: South African Journal of Political Studies, 1470-1014, Vo 18, No2 91-101.

Lothe, Elisabeth. Ending Ethnic Conflict: Can Power Sharing Contribute to Sustained Peace in Burundi? University of Oslo. May 2007.

Norris, Pippa. Power-Sharing. Ch. 5, “Electoral Systems”. Pg. 103-131.

Image by Terje S. Skjerdal

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