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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Ralph Premdas

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Ethno-Racial Divisions and Governance: The Problem of Institutional Reform and Adaptation
Many states in the international system are made up of multiple ethno-racial communities distinguished by overlapping cultural and racial characteristics among the main segments in the population. Some obvious cases include Sudan, South Africa, Fiji, Malaysia, Guyana, Mauritius, Rwanda, Burundi, Trinidad and Canada (indigenous peoples), where cultural solidarity communities are popularly assigned distinctive racio-phenotypical traits that have been historically and socially constructed. Apart from a number of obvious cases of states with plural ethno-racial communities, there are several others where, despite racial homogeneity in the population, racial differences are invented and assigned by the dominant class to subordinate minority groups as a means of justifying discrimination. Among these are Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Sri Lanka and Haiti. Racial myths can take shape within the same putative racio-biological group as a means of justifying class oppression.

Generally, ethno-cultural communities in practically all polyethnic states tend to compose their claims to a distinctive identity by attributing to themselves in their narratives not only cultural and historical differences but racial myths of superiority over rival groups. With rare exceptions, racial claims tend to be implicated in the construction of cultural identities. While this is the case, the paper focuses on the more obvious instances among states where racial myths are articulated into a mix of cultural difference and turned into a mode defining inter-group relations and leading to racially based discrimination and oppression.

Racio-cultural pluralism in a number of states has bred oppressive regimes, marked by racially discriminatory policies and practices that have triggered internal struggles, often spilling their borders, and creating costly and cruel humanitarian crises. Sudan stands as a good example of this pattern. The crux of the problem pertains to the establishment of a generally acceptable, just and democratic government that will accommodate the divergent claims of the respective communities for equality, equity and autonomy. Implicated are vexing issues related to the status and recognition of all communities equally, the removal of discrimination and domination, and the institution of policies regarding the equitable distribution of resources.

Over the past two decades, a variety of institutional forms and formulae have been advanced to design democratic governance in these deeply divided states. We shall look at the more important of these packaged formulations and prescriptions comparatively and critically, suggesting what opportunities they offer and their limits. Extensive research on state reform has yeilded a number of findings rendering the state more sensitive to the interests of the ethno-racial communities in promoting more democratic governance. Standing at the centre of these findings is ‘recognition’, which refers to the need for all communities, in their rich cultural and religious diversity, to be accorded juridical and social equality in a state that defines itself as multicultural. Clearly, this in part means that the state’s symbols must not neglect or marginalize the presence and practices of communities in the official ceremonies of the state, in the celebration of festivals and holidays, and the observance of religious events. Recognition of the intrinsic self-definition of a group is as important as, and often a prerequisite for, equality of access to material resources and political participation. This in turn requires sensitivity to group rights in appropriate spheres.

Often, ethno-racial states have inherited a hierarchical system of status and power from colonial practices privileging a particular group with political, economic, social and cultural advantages that are embodied in institutions and daily practices. These are frequently the source of invidious internal strife and must be dismantled in the reform of the state. The aim of public policy is to redefine relations at all levels so as to institute an order of equal membership in the state. The equality factor is intimately tied to participation and access to collective decision making in all aspects of state behaviour. Participation must not only be ritualized as a symbolic manifestation, it must also be endowed with substantive political capability for efficacy and power sharing. Finally, the end product of any design for cross-communal conviviality must confer an intangible tenor of fairness in the manner in which life is conducted between state and solidarity communities. This must pervade the society like blood the body. Perceived fairness legitimizes governance and may lead to inter-group comity, the mortar that sustains positive inter-group resolution of ongoing differences. Civil society must be recognized and encouraged to serve as a critical tier of political organization that promotes both liberty and accountability in governance. The foregoing cluster of ideas can be deemed a charter of commitment for co-existence, serving as a set of mutual guarantees embedded in the very constitution of the state. Once this is agreed upon as founding principle, then the task of designing specific institutions and practices to achieve these ends in the peculiar circumstance of each multi-ethnic state can be undertaken.

With regard to institutions and practices of democratic governance, it is clear that new modes of collective decision making departing from standard zero-sum, winner takes all, exclusionary parliamentary practices in Western democracies are required. Perhaps, the most crucial institutional design points to the need for power sharing in a consensus-oriented order. Systems that create permanent political minorities—often the victims of discrimination and abuse, and with no investment in maintaining order—must be avoided at all costs. Nearly all the cases of failed efforts in democratic governance point to institutions and practices derived from competitive and adversarial majoritarian parliamentary politics. It has been estimated that of some 50 former British colonies that became independent, 34 adopted the Westminster majoritarian system. While two of these (Botswana and Mauritius) remain today, finding an appropriate formula for inter-communal inclusiveness and accommodation in democratic governance remains a main challenge. It is, however, clear that reform of the institutions of governance in deeply divided states, including those marked by ethno-racial features, need to be crafted to produce consensus systems that involve all communities in negotiated power sharing and give them a stake in upholding the system. Governance, to be legitimate and win widespread citizenship allegiance, must be inclusive in a system of sharing power at all levels of government, including cabinet, parliament, public bureaucracy, and local and regional authorities. Power sharing and coalition systems underscore the idea that governance is about resolving collective problems peacefully through compromise and exchange in which divergent interests are articulated and accommodated in the political institutions and practices of the state. This process is all the more critical in those societies that are deeply divided by race, religion and ethnicity. Ethno-racial and ethno-cultural diversity impose special demands for tolerance in the reconciliation of rival claims and interests. Consensus making in democratic plural societies calls for perpetual inter-cultural sensitivity and moderate leaders capable of making compromises.

Often, in a coalition arrangement, power sharing is combined with a set of support institutions and practices—such as decentralized regional autonomy, proportional representation or alternative preference in the electoral system, minority veto rights, and a proportionate distribution of the employment opportunities and contracts offered by the state to all communities. Each of these devices has the potential, separately or in particular permutations, to reform the political practices of the state toward a democratic and just order in racially divided states. For instance, decentralization that devolves decision-making powers to a community creates in the diffusion of authority separate space and confers recognition in self-governing pride, and may also foster a culture and protect the identity of a people. However, some analysts do not regard devolution as useful, considering it a dangerous device that may lead to the disintegration of the state. They often prefer accommodation via a system of guaranteed constitutionally entrenched special rights, corporate representation in the national legislature, or constitutional group rights while preserving the unitary structure of the state. In part, these measures have the virtue of conferring recognition of group rights while decreasing the likelihood of isolating an ethic community in an enclave in which separatist politics tend to fester.

Like decentralization, there has been debate about the appropriate type of electoral system that best promotes inter-communal accommodation. Because of their capacity to exclude minorities and entrench majorities, there has been universal rejection of plurality systems that confer victory to the candidates with the highest number of votes in single seat constituencies. Some argue instead for proportional representation that allows minorities to gain representation, setting the stage for coalition power sharing in a consociational order. Others advocate the alternative vote or vote pooling, adopted in Fiji in 1997, aimed at fostering inter-ethnic co-operation and coalition building. While each electoral system has the potential to create coalition arrangements, it may not guarantee inter-communal governance and power sharing. Hence, a number of other devices have been advocated to effect this end: requiring ethnic or regional mixes in the holders of such strategic positions as head of state, prime minister, speaker of parliament; rotation of the presidency; extra seats for losers (Mauritius); entitlement to cabinet seats from a minimum percentage of votes garnered in the elections (South Africa and Fiji); and reserved seats for minorities. Such systems have a mixed record of accomplishing their aims. The paper details these arguments, discusses South Africa, Fiji, Malaysia and Guyana, and evaluates their potential as devices of governance in managing inter-sectional conflict and promoting co-operation.

By themselves, these institutions, separately or singularly, cannot predict exact consequences. Often, they generate unexpected effects detrimental to the society as a whole. They must be adapted to the peculiarities of their sociocultural environments bearing in mind the limits of cross-cultural transfers of social technology.