Electoral Systems and Stability in Divided Societies

Topics: Voting system, Plurality voting system, Instant-runoff voting Pages: 7 (2340 words) Published: April 8, 2014
Electoral Systems and Stability in Divided Societies


Severely divided countries pose a particular problem when it comes to securing democratic stability. Such countries are characterised by deep cleavages representing ‘sociocultural and ascriptive traits, such as race, ethnicity, language, religion or region’ (Bogaards, 2003, p. 59). Other forms of social division, which focus on wider issues, do not diffuse the strength of these cleavages, making them particularly entrenched. Democracy is ‘about access to power’, determining who gets power and what benefits this entails (Horowitz, 1993, p. 18). The problem in a divided society is that access to power is often determined by ethnic identity, with politicians ‘playing the race card at election time’ to mobilise the votes of their own group (Reilly, 2002, p. 156). This often leads to significant groups being marginalised and permanently denied access to power, as voting patterns are predetermined by group identity. Furthermore, political appeals to one’s own group leads to the demise of moderate politics, with the ‘centrifugal’ and escalating force of group appeals leading to the political centre being ‘pulled apart’ (p. ibid).

Democracy in a divided society can thus lead to a lack of both inclusion of all groups in the political process and a lack of moderation from politicians of all groups (Wolff, 2005, p. 62). Political inclusion is necessary to stability as one group will not accept permanent rule by another, given how deep these divisions are and the animosity that is often felt between groups (Horowitz, 1993, p. 19). Instability will often be the result of this as marginalised groups will resort to violence in an attempt to gain power, having lost faith in the democratic process. However inclusion alone is not sufficient, for inclusive governance ‘can only run smoothly if there is a significant degree of moderation’ from those involved so that political discourse can move away from the divisive issue of group identity (Wolff, 2005, p. 62).

This essay will argue that an appropriate electoral system is necessary for stability in a divided country. Since it determines the circumstances in which political power is achieved, an electoral system can facilitate inclusion of the divided groups in society and can ‘reward certain kinds of policies and strategies and punish others’ to promote moderation (Lal, 1997, p. 39). However, this is not sufficient. An electoral system’s success is limited by the idiosyncrasies of each country, such as the number of divided groups, their geographical concentration and most significantly the level of the polarisation.

The Power of Electoral Systems

Electoral systems are the ‘most powerful lever of political engineering for conflict resolution’ (Horowitz, 1997, p. 22). This is because it determines how votes translate into seats in the legislature (Reilly, 2007, p. 60) and thereby determining many aspects of the functioning of democracy: what the parties look like, who is represented and by whom, and ‘ultimately who governs’ (Reynolds, 1999, p. 89). Therefore the electoral system is the gateway to power in a democracy. It can be manipulated to ‘foster accommodative behaviour’ by ensuring that groups are included in the political process by ‘decreasing the incidence of zero-sum outcomes (Reilly, 1997a, p. 60). Furthermore by changing the incentives available to those seeking election, electoral rules ‘can make some types of behaviour more politically rewarding than others, making it possible to incentivise inclusiveness and moderation (Reilly, 2002, p. 156). Thus, the electoral system is foundational to the political culture in a society; it determines from the beginning on which lines an election will be run. It is absolutely necessary for it to foster both inclusiveness and moderation so that stability can follow. While getting this right is only one part of the quest for stability, getting it wrong can make...
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