Designing Electoral Systems to Combat Ethnic Divides

The design of a country’s electoral system can affect the formation of political parties and the ways in which minority groups enter the political arena. IFES’ 2012 Hybl Fellow Geoffrey Macdonald, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Denver, is exploring how electoral system design and party rules incentivize ethnic groups to form political associations.

Macdonald’s research focuses on Indonesia, South Africa and India. In this interview, he shares his findings and gives us an overview of the role of ethnicity in politics around the world.

What are you researching?

My dissertation investigates the conditions under which multiethnic political parties form and win elections in deeply divided societies, specifically Indonesia, South Africa and India. I focus on the role of electoral system design and party rules in incentivizing ethnic or multiethnic appeals.

For example, proportional representation systems, which translate a party’s percentage of the vote into seats, allow small, particularistic parties to compete in elections. If they get 7.5 percent of the votes, they’ll get 7.5 percent of the seats. This kind of system allows for the formation of parties that appeal to small ethnic groups. A majoritarian system forces parties to obtain 51 percent of the vote to win, which encourages broad, inclusive parties in order to enable gaining a large vote share, and concurrently makes it impossible for small, ethnic-based parties to win.

So far, you have explored the issue in South Africa and Indonesia. What have you found and how do the two compare?

In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress is increasingly using racial appeals to win elections. In Indonesia, the rhetoric of successful multiethnic parties focuses on policy-based appeals. I’ve found that the design of the electoral system and party rules play an important role in explaining this variation. South Africa’s proportional-representation electoral system provides no institutional mechanism to prevent ethnic political parties. On the other hand, Indonesia’s hybrid electoral system is designed to prevent the emergence of ethnic parties, and it has been successful at doing so.

Is ethnicity a factor in political associations all over the world?

Ethnicity plays differing roles in political processes across the globe. In some countries, competing ideologies define the political system – liberal, conservative, social-democrat and so on. These ideologies largely outweigh ethnic identities in political campaigns.

The United States has this type of political system. Although parties receive varying levels of support from white, black or Latino voters, for example, both the Democrats and Republicans pursue these groups. The parties are divided by philosophical orientation rather than ethnic basis.

In other countries, parties are built on identity – such as race, language or tribe – and ideology matters less. Lebanon’s consociational system divides parliamentary seats and executive positions by ethno-religious group. Iraq and Bosnia also have ethnic polarization in their parliaments. All of these countries have political parties that are grounded in ethnic identity rather than ideology. While this has a lot to do with history and culture, my research looks at the role of electoral system rules in encouraging or discouraging ethnic appeals.

Have any countries redesigned their electoral systems to combat divides along ethnic lines?

Some countries have employed so-called preferential voting electoral systems in order to create inclusive parties, which allow voters to rank order candidates on a ballot. This theoretically forces parties to compete for the second and third choices of voters. This makes their campaign appeals more moderate and inclusive.  Benjamin Reilly, a professor at Australian National University, studied the effects of these systems in several divided societies. The evidence is mixed, but Northern Ireland, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Estonia all appeared to show more moderate, inclusive politics after the implementation of preferential electoral systems. In contrast, Sri Lanka redesigned its electoral system but largely failed to change the ethnic nature of party competition.

Can electoral systems be used to include marginalized groups in the electoral process?

The principle of inclusion applies to both ethnic groups and marginalized groups, which are often the same thing in many societies. For example, India reserves parliamentary seats for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, which are poor and historically disadvantaged groups. Indonesia requires political parties to open headquarters in every province, and winning presidents must gain 20 percent of the vote in half of the provinces, which forces parties to compete in areas that might be home to marginalized ethnic or religious groups. Some countries will require what is called a “zipper system” for gender inclusion, which mandates that parties alternate male/female on their party lists so half the parliament is female. Additionally, district boundaries can be drawn in such a way that makes marginalized groups the majority, thus providing them with control over local government and at least one representative at the national level.

Why must countries pay attention to this issue?

Civil war has become the most dangerous and most common form of conflict in the world, far outnumbering conventional inter-state wars. Often these conflicts have an identity-based element. Iraq and Lebanon, where ethno-religious identities are politically salient and conflict-prone, represent cases in which it is vital to design a political system that can cultivate moderate, inclusive political parties.

My research studies Indonesia, South Africa and India—three conflict-prone democracies—in the hope of identifying the institutional arrangement that best fosters consensual parties, which can then be used as a model for other deeply divided countries.

How do you conduct your research?

My research is fieldwork based. I spent several months in both South Africa and Indonesia as a visiting scholar at the University of Cape Town and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, respectively. While in each country, I interviewed party officials, journalists and academics; examined survey data and election results; and analyzed rhetoric used during campaigns. This approach has allowed me to see the country’s elections and politics from both the voters’ and parties’ perspectives. I’m going to India this fall on a Fulbright scholarship to finish my research at the Centre for Multilevel Federalism in New Delhi, after which I’ll be able to conclude a full comparison of my cases and then generalize about the impact of electoral system design on ethnic and multiethnic parties.

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