chapter  4
25 Pages

Partisan attitudes and constitutional settlements in democratizing divided societies: Spain and Czechoslovakia


Some democratizing divided societies are confronted with a delicate balancing act that requires accommodating nationalist claims for symbolic recognition and territorial autonomy on the one hand and preserving the territorial integrity of the state on the other. The difficulty of reconciling these imperatives means that there are considerable differences in how nascent democracies manage this act. While some are able to successfully institutionalize national diversity in a reconfigured territorial order, others succumb to centrifugal pressures and breakup. This chapter studies these diverging paths in the cases of Spain and Czechoslovakia, two multinational states in which the politicization of long-standing territorial and national cleavages produced very different constitutional settlements. In Spain, the integrity of the state was preserved during democratization. By contrast, an impasse in the debate over a new constitution resulted in the breakup of Czechoslovakia. In order to understand these different outcomes, I will focus on the stance that political parties adopt towards the accommodation of nationalist claims and the territorial distribution of authority during the “critical juncture” of the democratic transition. As discussed by Bertrand and Jeram in Chapter 1, political organizations play a crucial role in steering transition. In the two cases investigated in this chapter, political parties in particular were the main actors that bargained over a new constitution and reached agreements on the territorial organization of the state. Hence, their stance towards state structures constitutes the main “proximate variable” shaping political outcomes. Therefore, the key premise of this chapter is that partisan attitudes are the principal mediating factor in explaining whether or not newly democratizing regimes are able to accommodate ethnic groups. I argue that the attitudes of political parties are strongly influenced by their strategic interests, significantly influenced by the founding election, and ideological beliefs, which are, in turn, shaped by the legacies of past institutions and practices (the presence of a historic tradition of accommodation). Through a detailed comparative analysis of the two cases, I show how the results of the founding elections interact with inherited institutions of the authoritarian regime to shape the capacity of nationalist parties to set the political agenda as well as the incentive structure for mainstream parties to accommodate nationalist claims.

The willingness of partisan actors to consider accommodative territorial strategies is further influenced by the relative distance of their positions from the status quo and from each other, and the deployment of a decision-making style that encourages mutual accommodation and the preservation of territorial integrity. Thus, in Spain, statewide parties had strategic incentives and ideological openness to accommodate nationalist claims, but needed to win broad support across the territory. At the same time they were committed to preserving the integrity of the state. By contrast, in Czechoslovakia, the absence of statewide parties that competed across the country (and could speak for both communities) in the founding elections ultimately gave a practical veto power to the nationalists over the political agenda and, along with the absence of a genuine tradition of territorial accommodation, engendered a constitutional deadlock that resulted in the velvet divorce. The chapter is divided into five sections. The first develops a theoretical framework for understanding the determinants of partisan attitudes and their influence on constitutional settlements. The second traces how nationalist parties set the agenda and examines how the strategic interests and ideological beliefs of mainstream parties condition their willingness to accommodate nationalist claims. The third section examines the bargaining process between partisan actors, focusing on how parties’ position and decision-making style shape political outcomes. The fourth section compares the two countries to draw out inferences regarding the influence of attitudes, while the conclusion summarizes the findings and highlights their implications.