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close this bookThe Courier N 140 - July - Aug 1993 - Dossier: National Minorities - Country Reports: Dominica, Mozambique (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
close this folderDossier: National minorities
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentWhat are minorities?- some possible criteria
View the documentThe basis of prejudice
View the documentPolitical representation
View the documentInternational legal protection
View the documentThe minority lights trap
View the documentThe African context: asset or liability?
View the documentA policy overview
View the documentTowards a new system of protection
View the documentLinguistic minorities in the European Conununtry
View the documentCreating marginalised dependent minorities Relief programmes for refugees in Europe
View the documentIndigenous peoples
View the documentSome examples of minority situations

Political representation

A good indication of the status and self-confidence of minority groups within existing states can be found in the way in which such groups are represented, if at all, in the political structures. In today's world, democratic systems predominate and, on the whole, democracy offers the most promising setting for minorities to mobilise politically. However, democracy comes in many different forms and, since there is obviously no simple 'minority' model either, the scope of the subject is clearly enormous. In this article, we focus on the way in which democratic structures cater for minority groups and, conversely, on the approach which minorities choose to adopt in mobilising within systems to ensure that their voice is heard. This article does not deal with the more thorny issue of minority 'representation' in non-democratic systems although it is worth noting that while in many cases, they are excluded altogether (and often oppressed), there can be circumstances, even in autocracies, where minorities are given some sort of 'voice' in the system. Even powerful non-elected presidents cannot ignore public opinion entirely and they may feel it expedient, for example, to appoint minority leaders to ministerial posts in order to neutralise possible dissent.

In discussing those systems of government which are broadly viewed as being 'democratic', an initial distinction can be drawn between the political structures which have been created and the way in which minorities choose to mobilise within them. Taking the structures first, it should be recognised that the right to stand for election combined with universal suffrage does not alone provide a guarantee of fair representation for minorities. In broad terms, a democracy should have two essential characteristics if a minority community is to have a level playing field for political participation. These are a democratic atmosphere and a system which fairly reflects the diversity of views in any given society.

Democratic atmosphere

The first of these, which some would argue is the more important, implies a general recognition that people have a right to express contrary opinions and will be given the opportunity to do so without fear of discrimination or persecution. In fact, most democracies adhere to a set of human rights principles which purport to guarantee this freedom of speech and back it up with other norms which are also important for the effective functioning of democracy such as the secrecy of the ballot, freedom from arbitrary arrest and the liberty of the press. Unfortunately, however, rules and reality do not always coincide and the mere existence of legal provisions does not necessarily mean that they will be properly implemented in practice. There is obviously a particular challenge, in this context, for new democracies where people are unused to, and perhaps uneasy about, criticism of those in power and where there may still be a reflex to suppress such behaviour. But there is also a need to guard against slippage in 'old' democracies, whose voters may become complacent or disillusioned. Accepting the proposition that power is likely to corrupt those who wield it, voter passivity can lead to erosion of freedoms in a more insidious way. Participation is therefore a further essential element of a healthy democracy.

It is obvious that minority groups are likely to face difficulties in countries that are notionally democratic but which fail to provide the necessary democratic atmosphere. There is little point in standing for election if one is effectively denied access to the media, for example.

The ability to get one's message across to the electorate is clearly essential and political parties in developing countries may face special difficulties because of lack of finance. The simple act of putting one's message on paper, printing leaflets and distributing them to the voters costs money which must be found from somewhere. And even if the cash can be raised, the impact of written tracts is likely to be limited in countries which have low literacy rates. In such circumstances, access to the broadcast media-particularly radio-becomes essential for effective campaigning.

A further problem for opposition parties throughout the world is that rulers have the advantage of a government machine which may legally be required to be neutral but which, in practice, can be employed to deliver particular messages in favour of the governing elite. It seems likely, human nature being what it is, that governments will always be tempted to exploit this advantage, even in countries which appear to have a democratic atmosphere. The most effective constraint in such cases is public disapproval but this can only be engendered if the system is transparent and opposition forces have the means at their disposal to highlight the abuse.

Finally, in the context of creating a democratic atmosphere, tolerance is a crucial element which must be nurtured. Political activists are human beings and if they are in danger of being subjected to abuse-or indeed violent attack-they will be less inclined to campaign. People who have a strong commitment to a particular set of ideals, or a particular political movement, often find it difficult to understand how anyone can hold contrary views! But if they refuse to listen to such views, or react forcefully against them, then democracy is undermined. This is something which is not always appreciated even by people living in longestablished democracies.

Reflecting what the people want

The second element which is likely to be of importance to minorities is the extent to which the 'democratic' system allows for them to be fairly represented in the elected bodies. At first sight, the idea that the composition of a parliament should reflect the views of the electorate -and hence give minorities representation commensurate with their numerical strength in a society-would seem both uncontroversial and relatively easy to achieve. Indeed, it is arguable that a system which does not ensure a representative legislature is not in fact democratic. But in reality, the question of which system to choose can pose considerable difficulties.

In seeking to reflect the views of the voters, one must have some idea of their objectives when they enter the polling booth. For example, are they interested in voting for a party or an individual? Some countries have systems which are weighted in favour of party voting but offer little or no scope for individual candidate preferences. Others adhere to the fiction that it is only individuals that are being elected to represent a given area and make no provision for the overall party balance in the country.

Then there is the strategic question of the kind of government the voters wish to see. Do they give priority to the election of a majority government? If so, then it may be justified to have a system which gives greater weight to the largest group in order that they can exercise power more freely. This, of course, means that each vote does not have an equal value. Alternatively, would they prefer to have a legislature which faithfully reflects the voting preferences of the population as a whole? This implies a proportional voting system and, in all likelihood, a coalition-forming process after the votes have been cast.

Where systems are being considered, there is also an important choice to be made between presidential and parliamentary government. The former concentrates power in the hands of a single politician, the latter gives greater emphasis to a 'team' approach.

It seems reasonable to assume that most minorities would prefer parliamentary systems based on proportional voting, since, taken together, these two elements should improve their chances of being able to participate in the exercise of power. Proportionality ought to result in fair representation for them-although, if they represent a majority in a particular geographical area of the country, a single member system may also do this. Of course, this is something of a generalisation-small minority communities will have less influence than larger ones and even in the most 'representative' systems, substantial minorities may find themselves excluded where a homogenous majority group holds the levers of power.

In some democracies, special provision is made for the representation of minorities in the form of 'reserved seats'. Such an approach may be applauded if it is because the minority in question would otherwise be too small to reach the threshold required for representation under the prevailing electoral rules, such as in Germany (where Danish speakers have guaranteed representation) or in New Zealand (which has reserved Maori seats). But it can also be used as a pretext for a majority group to monopolise power, particularly where separate electoral rolls are involved. The result may well be that minorities remain on the political margins.

How minorities (and majorities) organise themselves

Irrespective of the system that is adopted, there are various ways in which minorities may choose to operate within a democracy. The defining criteria for the formation of political parties vary considerably from one country to another. At one 'extreme' there are states whose politics are purely issue-based (the term 'issue' being confined in this context to substantive political questions relating to the economy, trade, transport, housing, health etc.). In western democracies, the usual pattern is the classic 'left-right' spectrum where people band together with others who hold similar views on a range of social and economic issues. There are also single-issue groupings- people who give such priority to a particular subject (such as the environment) that they choose to organise politically on this basis. However, both 'left-right' divisions and single issue politics share an important common characteristic, namely that the people involved organise themselves without reference to factors of race, creed, language or colour. At the other extreme are those states where political affiliation is determined largely by attachment to a particular group whether it be a nationality, tribe, religion or language community. There are, of course, a great many countries which fall somewhere between the two with issue- and groupbased parties both represented in the legislature.

Almost by definition, minority issues are likely to be low on the political agenda in countries whose politics are issue dominated. This is not to say that minorities do not exist, but the fact that they operate within wider political groupings points to a lack of grievance, or at least a belief that the system offers opportunities for any problems to be resolved. Where minorities choose to operate through their own political groupings, a sense of alienation from the mainstream can normally be presumed. In some cases, where the minority is geographically concentrated in a territory which is historically 'theirs', the main objective may be greater self-government or perhaps even full statehood. In others, it may simply be a question of defending the interests-and indeed, preserving the identity-of a community which is more widely dispersed within the society.

In the final analysis, therefore, the way in which minorities choose to organise within democratic systems will depend on the local circumstances. To the idealist, the participation of minorities within the 'mainstream', in a political environment which allows for but is otherwise blind to their ethnic, religious or other 'separateness', would be the perfect solution. In practice, as illustrated by many of today's conflicts in different parts of the world, there is a long way to go before this can be achieved.