Ethnic Parties and Democratic Stability

Kanchan Chandra
2005 Perspectives on Politics  
Ethnic divisions, according to empirical democratic theory, and commonsense understandings of politics, threaten the survival of democratic institutions. One of the principal mechanisms linking the politicization of ethnic divisions with the destabilization of democracy is the so-called outbidding effect. According to theories of ethnic outbidding, the politicization of ethnic divisions inevitably gives rise to one or more ethnic parties. The emergence of even a single ethnic party, in turn,
more » ... party, in turn, "infects" the political system, leading to a spiral of extreme bids that destroys competitive politics altogether. In contrast, I make the (counterintuitive) claim that ethnic parties can sustain a democratic system if they are institutionally encouraged: outbidding can be reversed by replacing the unidimensional ethnic identities assumed by the outbidding models with multidimensional ones. My argument is based on the anomalous case of ethnic party behavior in India. It implies that the threat to democratic stability, where it exists, comes not from the intrinsic nature of ethnic divisions, but from the institutional context within which ethnic politics takes place. Institutions that artificially restrict ethnic politics to a single dimension destabilize democracy, whereas institutions that foster multiple dimensions of ethnic identity can sustain it. Is the resolution of intense but conflicting preferences in the plural society manageable in a democratic framework? We think not. --Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth Shepsle, Politics in Plural Societies If a competitive system is less likely in countries with a considerable measure of subcultural pluralism, it would be going too far to say that it is impossible. --Robert Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition
doi:10.1017/s1537592705050188 fatcat:fg3nqfklc5bu5nlf7ghycbyxqa