(An excerpt from ‘Ethnicity and Political Parties in Africa: The case of ethnic-based parties in Ethiopia by Dr. Wondwosen B. Teshome /sub-titles are mine/)
At present, both in established democracies and emerging democracies ethnic-based parties are expanding. In many Western countries that have more homogenous society ethnic parties are rare. But, in Canada and other heterogeneous European countries (e.x. Belgium, Macedonia, Spain, and United Kingdom), in Asia (E.x. India, Russia, Srilanka), and in the Middle East (e.g. Israel) we find ethnic parties (Alonso 2005, Chandra 2004: 1). According to Cheeseman and Ford (2007:23), in Africa between 2001 and 2006 the number of ethnic parties decreased while the number of non-ethnic parties increased.
Moreover, Cheeseman and Ford (2007) revealed that the proportion of ethnic ruling parties dropped from 40% in 2001 to 30% in 2003 and to 20% in 2006. On the other hand between 2003 and 2006 the proportion of ethnic opposition parties increased. In rich countries ethnic parties are less dominant (Banerejee and Pande 2007: 6). It is generally believed that when societies develop and the economy shifts from agriculture towards heavy industry and then service economy, traditional social identities would be eroded. In other words, as argued by Crewe and Denver (1985), Dalton et al (1984), and Norris (2003) high literacy rate, geographic mobility, societal modernization, access to the news media would loosen the grip of ethnicity in developing countries. Hence, “Better-educated and more cognitively sophisticated citizens....have less need to rely upon the traditional social cues of ethnicity in electoral choices” (Norris & Mattes (2003:5).
In countries which are dominated by ethnic party competitions ethnic parties which represent the largest ethnic group have an electoral advantage (Banerejee and Pande 2007:2, Chandra 2004). According to Gunther and Diamond (2001: 23), “the principal goal of the ethnic party is not any universalistic program or platform, but rather to secure material, cultural, and political benefits and protections for the ethnic group in its competition with other groups”. Moreover, the major aim of ethnic party, as argued by Gunther and Diamond (2001: 23), is “to harden and mobilize its ethnic base with exclusive, often polarizing appeals toethnic group opportunity and threat, .... electoral mobilization is not intended toattract additional sectors of society to support it”. The objectives of the policies of ethnic parties, almost at all times, are the preservation of the culture and the promotion of the interests of their co-ethnics. In order to achieve these, ethnic parties are established at the state level (Kantor 2006: 160-161).
The Domino Effect
Though ethnic party is usually presumed to be detrimental to democratic stability in the so-called “patronage-democracies,” it usually survives and flourishes, but only in two conditions: “when it has competitive rules for intraparty advancement and when the size of the ethnic group(s) it seeks to mobilize exceeds the threshold of winning or leverage imposed by the electoral system” (Chandra 2004: 1). According to Chandra (2002:1-2), ethnic parties are more stable than multi-ethnic parties and non-ethnic parties since the elites that hold the leadership of the party belong to the same ethnic group. Law (2005: 52-53) argues that “the formation of one ethnic party is likely to produce a chain reaction that leads to the formation of an ethnic political party system.” That is to say, theoretically speaking the transformation of one party into an ethnic party would also accelerate similar transformation of other parties. This is because once a party turns into an ethnic party it snatches voters (co-ethnics) away from the other non-ethnic parties.
Kantor (2006: 160) indicated that in societies that are structured along ethnic or national cleavages ethnic parties are formed. Countries that are ethnically diverse and low income tend to be organized along ethnic lines (Chua 2003; Horowitz 1985; Law 2005: 47; Posner 2005). The chances for ethnic parties to get electoral vote from non-members (i.e. members of ethnic groups) is very slim. Therefore, their existence depends on the vote and support they receive from their own co-ethnics. In ethnic-based party systems “those voters who crossed ethnicparty lines were subject, not just to the usual group pressures, but also to actual intimidation and even physical violence,”say Norris and Mattes (2003: 5) based on their studies conducted in Ghana, Trinidad and Guyana.
According to Banerejee and Pande (2007: 7), most of the time, ethnic political parties easily succeed in getting the support of their ethnic groups. This is because a voter favors his own ethnic group “for historical, social or symbolic reasons”. In ethnically diverse countries, ethnic parties get higher advantages over other parties during election due to the following factors: (1) The voters will be instinctively pulled towards their co-ethnics (Shils 1957; Huntington 1996) (2) A shared language (common language) and social network facilitates political organization along ethnic lines (Bates 1983; Fearon and Laitin 1996) (3) It is much easier to target patronage along ethnic lines (Chandra 2004; Glaeser and Goldin 1995) (4) It is easy for ethnic party to dominate an election and political power in its ethnic constituency since other political parties get very less chance in the constituency (Fearon 1999, Caselli and Coleman 2005).
Ethnic-based Parties and Stability
Many scholars (Horowitz 1985, Lijphart 1977, Rabushka and Shepsle 1972) have indicated that ethnic parties and the politicization of ethnic differences create instability and are assumed to be a major threat. Party systems where ethnically based parties dominate “are prone to conflict, exacerbating existing ethnic divisions...because holding the reins of power in state office is often seen as a zero-sum game, rather than a process of accommodation” (Norris and Matts 2003:3, citing Donald Horowitz). This theory is strongly advocated by Horowitz (2000: 294) and Wolf (2002). Other works (Deegan 2003: 2; Nikiwane 2000) also consider ethnic divisions as one of the causes for the weaknesses of political parties in Africa. By using South Africa as a case study Nikiwane (2000) said, “The biggest weakness of these opposition parties is that they are regional, at best, and tribal in orientation. Their only hope was to unify their organizations. But because of their fundamental structures (parochialism), they have consistently been unable to come together, let alone to agree on unified positions.” Deegan (2003: 2) also described the problems and weaknesses of African political systems as follows:
“Often parties had no constituencies or were ethnic-based; equally, political programmes, interaction with the populace and financial transparency were nonexistent. Internal party democracy was often unknown and many opposition parties actually disbanded between elections.”
Kaufmann and Conversi (n.d.) argue the emergence of ethnic party systems in divided societies due to democratization usually leads countries into inter-state conflict and intense ethnic divisions. To sum up, ethnic party system usually leads a country to three directions: military regime, one-party authoritarian regime, or the establishment of multi-ethnic parties and coalitions (Law 2005: 59). On the other hand, there are few scholars who attempted to justify the need for ethnic parties in Africa due to various compelling reasons. For instance, for Walraven (2000) ethno-regional groupings are the logical strategies for political parties to challenge incumbent parties in Africa. It is argued that the lack of class divisions and the absence or the weakness of strong civil society led African political parties to be established along ethnic lines. Another scholar, Lawson (1999: 12), also argued, “In the absence of formal associations clearly apart from the state and capable of engaging the population, the introduction of liberal democratic procedures, at the behest of external donors, had led political parties to appeal to the only available alternative: ethnic identity.”
According to Bogaards (2008: 6), the ban of ethnic party is usually a form of political engineering aimed at ethnic conflict prevention and management. Perhaps, the first nation in Africa that banned particularistic parties was Ghana. Kwame Nikurmah, the first leader of independent Ghana, passed a law banning such parties in the 1960s. In contemporary Africa, twenty-two African countries have laws directly or indirectly banning particularistic parties. Sometimes, African leaders who come from minority ethnic group ban the formation of ethnic-based parties fearing that the leaders of the major ethnic groups can easily snatch political power. The best example here is Kenya, where the long time president, Daniel Arap Moi, belongs to a minority tribe or ethnic group (Basedau et al 2007: 618).
Ethnic-based Parties and Democracy
Horowitz (1991, 1985) argues that in countries where ethnic-based parties dominate the quality of democracy is likely to suffer. This assumption, according to Chandra (2002: 23), is based on the concept of the so-called “out bidding effect” concept. This concept (i.e. “ethnic outbidding”) states that the rise of ethnic party, which is always the result of ethnic divisions “infects” the political system, destroys competitive politics, and threatens the survival of democratic institutions. For Sisk (1996) ethnically-dominated party system lowers the quality of democracy because it limits peoples’ electoral choices only to the members of a particular ethnic group. Ethnic-dominated party systems also decrease the quality of democracy because in such system politicians are focused more on the interests of their respective ethnic groups at the expense of the country’s interest.