It is widely accepted that broad-based, multi-ethnic parties are good for democracy in ethnically diverse societies. There has been surprisingly little attention to how such parties can be sustained and fragmentation avoided. This paper from the journal Democratization draws on examples from new democracies in the developing world to identify four strategies of party engineering used to promote multi-ethnic political parties.
In ethnically divided and multi-ethnic societies, political parties tend to form around ethnic allegiances. Almost all recent civil wars have featured mono-ethnic political parties with ethnically exclusive agendas. A number of prevailing approaches to conflict prevention actually facilitate ethnic politics. UN-supported transitional elections, for example, have used relatively permissive proportional representation systems. In post-colonial Africa and Asia, there has been more effort to restrict the ability of ethnic groups to form parties. This reflects a similar divergence in approaches to building sustainable democracy in ethnically diverse societies. ‘Consociational’ approaches deliberately make ethnic groups the building blocks of politics. ‘Centripetalism’ seeks to shift focus away from ethnicity towards less volatile issues and develop centrist, aggregative and multi-ethnic political parties.
There are four distinct approaches to the challenge of building multi-ethnic political parties:
- Constraining ethnic parties: Regulations may ban ethnic parties outright, make it difficult for small or regional parties to register, or require cross-ethnic composition. These have been implemented in Turkey, Latin America and South-east Asia.
- Electoral systems and party systems: Measures may dictate the ethnic composition of parties, use electoral barriers, vote pooling or distribution requirements. These can be seen as harmful interferences with democracy but have seen some successes, particularly in Indonesia, South Africa and Nigeria.
- Top-down approaches to party building: Instead of allowing parties to form organically, top-down approaches aim to stabilise politics by increasing discipline and cohesion.
- Constitutional, electoral and party reforms in Papua New Guinea encouraged candidates to cooperate with each other and reduced electoral violence.
- External interventions: Party organisations may receive financial or technical assistance from donors, non-governmental organisations or multilateral agencies. This has not stopped ethnicity dominating politics in the Balkans, but has brought previous fighting forces into the political fold in Mozambique.
The capacity of parties to manage conflicts depends on the nature of party systems and structure of individual parties. Despite this, the idea that parties can be engineered in the same way as other parts of the political system remains controversial.
- It is difficult to sustain multi-ethnic parties in divided societies without explicit intervention in the party system. Most recent interventions have featured centripetal rather than consociational approaches.
- Developing countries with new democracies are at the forefront of this movement.
- Many new democracies in the developing world are in ethnically plural societies. They face the duel challenge of encouraging political competition while restricting the politicisation of ethnicity.
- States such as Indonesia, trying to manage ethnic divisions and consolidate democracy, will provide important lessons for other conflict-prone societies.