chapter  8
18 Pages

Ethnically based redistributive policies in democratizing bipolar states


In a critique of the democratization literature, Thomas Carothers (2002: 6) argues that scholars of democratic change have often conflated any move away from authoritarian forms of government with a move towards democracy. Problematically, the transition narrative may miscast the dilemmas that seem to bedevil many countries that appear to be perpetually stuck in a space somewhere between the two poles of authoritarianism and consolidated democracy. In this chapter I examine how democratization efforts in many postcolonial contexts are impacted by mythologies of ethnic dominance that can limit the probability of a state moving to a more transparent and open politics. In particular, I look at a category of ethnically plural states that are characterized by a form of heterogeneity where at least one group possesses sufficient numbers to try to claim dominance over politics. Milne (1981) and Reilly (2006) have identified these bipolar states as possessing structural features that generate incentives for a type of zero-sum politics in which political authority is viewed as the sacrosanct property of one ethnic community. A resurgence in the literature examining these sorts of autochthonous claims has stressed the importance of ethnic myths and symbols that justify such claims for authority (Geschiere and Jackson 2006; Kaufmann 2004; Marshall-Fratani 2006). This chapter moves beyond the mythological justifications for power and examines how ethnically based redistributive (EBR) policies impact, and are impacted by, electoral democracy and its attendant institutions in postcolonial, ethnically divided societies. EBRs consist of those public policies that take resources from one or more ethnic communities in a society and target them towards specific groups with the stated intention of lessening the gap in economic performance between ethnic groups. Such policies include affirmative action programs, positive discrimination, and other rules that are intended to improve economic opportunities for target groups. While some multi-ethnic states have implemented such programs to ostensibly aid poor minorities, for example, India, the broader array of EBRs direct resources away from wealthy minorities towards majority ethnic communities. This practice is not incidental. Rather, my main contention is that EBRs are less oriented towards “leveling the playing field” between ethnic groups and are more oriented towards creating and maintaining a dominant ethnic core. These

policies are an important part of an overall government strategy that can maintain some degree of inter-ethnic stability in light of the sometimes centrifugal tensions inherent in ethnic politics. This stability comes at the cost of full and equal democratic participation by all ethnic groups. By extension, this implies that the difficulties often attributed to democratic reforms are less institutional and more closely related to ethnic polarization and ethnic majority rejection of the possibility of dominance by non-majority communities. Thus, like several others in this volume, this chapter points to the ambiguous reciprocal impact of democratic transitions and ethnic group relations on each other, and the possibility that democracy’s accent on popular sovereignty will be translated into ethnic majority group domination, particularly in postcolonial societies. Laliberté (Chapter 7) explains how a Mainlander minority cultivated links with the Hoklo majority in Taiwan in order to minimize a sense of minority domination. The Taiwanese experience offers valuable insights into how ethnic tensions might be successfully mitigated by reliance upon common and unifying ethnic symbols and myths. However, in some cases the perceived benefits of political dominance can outweigh the costs of cross-ethnic appeals, particularly when there are no credible assurances that a newly empowered ethnic group will not use political authority to punish its ethnic competitors. Hence, it may be the case that for many states, democratization is less a process with a clear and widely accepted end-point, and rather a semi-permanent state characterized by attempts at marginal political liberalization that do little more than cast a veneer of democratic legitimacy on an otherwise ethnically hierarchical system. It should be remembered that with few exceptions, states in the postcolonial world achieved independence espousing commitments to democratic inclusion for all citizens and professing national projects that reflected their multi-ethnic character. Nevertheless, many postcolonial societies quickly regressed to authoritarianism (Rabushka and Shepsle 1972) or replaced inclusive national ideologies with ones that privileged certain groups over others (Wimmer 1997). Examples include Nigeria, Uganda, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Fiji, and Zimbabwe. In each of these cases, procedural democracy proved difficult to reconcile with competing ethnic claims, yielding polities marked either by periods of authoritarian rule or hybrid regimes that blend elements of authoritarianism with competitive politics. I argue that claims of indigenous privilege and policies like EBRs, which are manifestations of this type of privilege, ultimately imperil democratization by making those parties associated with minority ethnic communities illegitimate. It is important to note at the outset that not all postcolonial states are the same in terms of their ethnic plurality, or in the relationship between ethnic politics and democratization. A number of plural societies, such as India and Tanzania, have proven remarkably capable of sustaining democracy despite immense ethnic pluralism. There are a number of postcolonial states, however, whose ethnic pluralism is characterized by what has come to be known as bipolarization. In bipolar states there are comparatively few ethnic groups and at least one of these groups possesses the ability to monopolize political power. Such

polarization frequently generates incentives for groups to mobilize out of a fear of domination by other groups. Reilly (2006) discovers that among countries in the Asia Pacific region, those characterized by bipolarism are vastly more likely to be authoritarian or semi-democratic. In contrast, countries in the region with high degrees of ethnic pluralism, measured using Fearon’s (2003) fractionalization index, are all democracies.1