Representational Mechanisms and Ethnopolitics: Evidence from Transitional Democracies in Eastern Europe

Article excerpt

The history of the modern era has been littered with examples of failed democratic experiments. In ethnically divided societies, the introduction of democratic competition and expanded political participation has often led to disintegrative ethnic conflict.(1) Many have pointed to the impact of representational arrangements as the key factor influencing this conflict. Some advocate structural solutions which maximize the representation of all groups. Others favor systems which exclude groups, lest the political system be infected with ethnic extremism. In short, the relationship between institutions and ethnic political conflict is by no means resolved.

This paper seeks to investigate how representational mechanisms (especially electoral rules and federalism) affected the development of transitional political parties and, in turn, the development of ethnic political relations in the period immediately following the initial elections in Czechoslovakia, Latvia and Estonia from 1990-1991. Attention to the initial period of partisan development is of theoretical interest because, as several scholars have note& early developments in party evolution condition the subsequent structuring of the party system as a whole.(2) Within the context of an ethnically divided society, these developments often set the tenor for future ethnic accommodation, or conflict.(3)

The cases selected for investigation are Latvia, Estonia and Czechoslovakia. Multiple cases are investigated rather than a single case to provide a comparative yardstick by which to assess the impact of representational mechanisms. Although differences are not completely controlled for, these cases provide enough similarities as to warrant their inclusion. Each was a divided society with two major ethnic groups, one numerically smaller (the "Russians"(4) versus Baltic peoples in Estonia and Latvia, Slovaks versus Czechs in Czechoslovakia) and geographically concentrated.(5) Second, all three used a parliamentary model as an initial political framework. Finally all three cases were plagued with similar economic and political problems which were associated with post-communist transitions. However, the electoral mechanisms they employed to govern the initial elections were quite different. Latvia was a unitary system which employed the old Soviet system of single-member districts with a majority formula and two ballots; Estonia employed a variation of PR, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and a unitary system. Czechoslovakia, however, was a federal state which employed a party list proportional representation (PR) system. Another difference was the Baltic States' and Czechoslovakia's relationship to the international environment. The Baltic states during this period were not independent, and hence subject to events in Moscow. But if anything this should increase the propensity toward ethnically based partisan politics, since outside interference often raises the stakes involved and intensifies the potential for conflict along ethnic lines.(6)

Both the recent nature of democratic transitions in Eastern Europe and the available evidence precludes a completely conclusive analysis of the ultimate effects of political structures on the evolution of political parties--such an analysis will have to wait until the radical changes which have so transformed Eastern Europe have been assimilated into the political structure of the countries concerned. Thus, rather than systematically test specific hypotheses, these cases will be used to suggest how representative mechanisms influenced the development of transitional parties and how this in turn affected relations between them.


Historically, there has been considerable debate on which representational mechanisms are most apt to promote political stability in ethnically divided new democracies. Two dimensions are involved in the debate over representational mechanisms. …


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