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Democracy in Divided Societies: Electoral Engineering for Conflict Management

Reilly, B. (2001) Democracy in Divided Societies: Electoral Engineering for Conflict Management. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K..

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The question of whether, and how, democracy can survive in divided societies has long been a source of controversy in political science. Some of the greatest political thinkers have argued that stable democracy is possible only in relatively homogeneous societies. John Stuart Mill, for example, believed that democracy was incompatible with the structure of a multi-ethnic society, as `free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities' (1958 [1861], 230). This was a view prevalent amongst many scholars and policy-makers until at least the 1960s, with the perils of `tribalism' and ethnic division frequently cited as causing the failure of democracy in the newly independent states of Africa and Asia in the post-war period (see, e.g., Low 1991, 272-3). Much of this conventional wisdom regarded ethnic conflicts as primordial and irrational manifestations of traditional rivalries and passions, leaving little room for explanations based on the objectives and interests of those involved in such conflicts. When scholars did turn their attention towards such interests, many saw more reasons for the failure of democracy in divided societies than for its persistence. A classic example is the rationa actor arguments against the likelihood of stable democracy in divided societies put by Rabushka and Shepsle (1972), who argue that would-be political leaders typically and the rewards of ‘outbidding’ on ethnic issues - moving towards increasingly extremist rhetoric and policies - greater than those of moderation. Because ethnic identities tend to be invested with a great deal of symbolic and emotional meaning in such circumstances, aspiring politicians hungry for electoral success have strong incentives to harness these identities as a political force, and to use communal demands as the base instigator of constituency mobilisation.

Item Type: Book
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
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