The Link Between Electoral Systems & the Democratic Representation of Ethnic Minorities
In what ways is a state’s electoral system linked to the effective democratic representation of its ethnic minorities?
STV2360, Autumn 2015
Understanding how electoral systems impact ethnic minority representation is very important when analysing, evaluating and establishing democracies. Gallagher, Laver & Mair (2011) tell us that electoral systems matter: they are a vital characteristic of democracy, and their structure has a significant impact on how democratic governments function. In this sense, discussion can be engaged in regarding whether electoral system design can or should align with a particular value or goal – and whether this evaluation could then establish scaffolds for more democratic electoral models (Raabe 2012). In itself, attaining comprehensive representation for ethnic minorities has significant implications for democracy (Moser 2008). The link between electoral systems and minority representation is doubtless a good notion to begin with in this type of discussion – examining ethnic minority representation in particular narrows the scope of that discussion. We will analyse scholarly research conducted in Bulgaria, Denmark and Russia as a method for understanding this issue, and in this spirit, will explore the question: in what ways is a state’s electoral system linked to the effective democratic representation of its ethnic minorities?
Theoretical Background and Outline
Lijphart’s Patterns of Democracy (2012) clearly identifies two forms of democracy: majoritarian and consensus. In terms of electoral systems, he links single-member district (SMD)/plurality systems with majoritarian democracies, and proportional representation (PR) with consensus democracies. With regards to minority representation, Lijphart draws a fundamental differentiation between the two: SMD systems will always represent the majority and leave the minority/ies largely unrepresented, while PR systems are designed to translate votes to seats proportionally, and thus provide representation for all groups. Gallagher, Laver & Mair (2011) cite Lijphart’s work when discussing the merits of certain electoral systems, but also make the following points: electoral systems vary across Europe, but have many common characteristics; the relative proportionality of either system is not necessarily the purpose of either system, rather a result of the different priorities of each; and there is not necessarily a casual link between electoral systems and the observable behaviour of political actors. These points are important to remember when subjecting electoral systems to comparative analysis via case studies, primarily due to the multiple factors at play within each case.
Duverger suggests that SMD models result in the manifestation of two-party electoral systems, while PR models result in multi-party systems (Gallagher, Laver & Mair 2011); both of these occurrences are conditional to anticipated voter behaviour. When Duverger and Lijphart’s claims are taken to be true, so to can assertions by scholars like Blais (1991) that multi-member systems (PR, by extrapolation) are fairer in terms of minority representation due to the distribution of votes and attempts by parties to appeal to all voters. In saying this, some, like Moser (2008), argue that there is very little empirical evidence that supports this assertion, and thus that PR systems are not necessarily more effective in these terms. As such, consideration needs to be given to the real-life situation of electoral systems in various national contexts, and to the multiple associated factors that influence the link between these systems and representation of ethnic minorities. For this purpose we will analyse scholarly research of democratic electoral systems in Bulgaria (Protsyk & Sachariew 2012), Denmark (Togeby 2008), and Russia (Moser 2008).
Despite widespread scholarly support for PR as a representatively fair electoral model, there are some situations where this support has limited footing. For instance, exclusionist policies can prevent positive effects of PR systems being felt by minority groups, and, while PR systems provide incentives for minority representation by actual members of minority groups, this representation can be ‘nominal’ (Protsyk & Sachariew 2012, p. 331). In saying this, although arguments for SMD link closer candidate/constituent ties with more comprehensive accountability, the idea still stands that SMD is inherently less likely than PR to effectively represent minorities due to proportionality and distribution factors (Blais 1991). In saying this, there is still potential for SMD minority representation: Moser (2008) argues that ethnic minority parties can manifest in electorates where their geographic concentration allows for their formation and election; likewise in these areas, major parties are more likely to nominate candidates from minority ethnic groups in order to appeal to their constituents (Moser 2008). In this sense, SMD is successful, but PR still provides for fairer representation of minorities because their representation is not dependent on their relative concentration, and can take place in more circumstances under such a system (Moser 2008).
Important to remember when exploring these ideas is that each state context is different. We will be pulling comparative case studies from Eastern and Western Europe, and such countries have multiple variables that impact on an analysis of their electoral systems, like post communist governance, depth of ethnic division, proportion of ethnic minority population and relative indications of democracy. It is also important to keep in mind that minority representation does not necessarily refer to the existence of elected candidates from a minority group – it can also refer to the way in which the interests and values of minority groups are represented by other elected officials in government. We will focus on the former, but the latter remains relevant.
In summation: PR systems are, on theoretical grounds, assumed to be more effective and ‘fair’ in terms of representation of ethnic minority groups, but in practice, may not always be as effective. The opposite can be said of SMD systems. We will draw on work by scholars on cases from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, from Bulgaria, Denmark, and Russia, in order to evaluate these assumptions.
Consideration of Research Conducted by Scholars, on Cases from Europe
The Bulgarian Case
Protsyk & Sachariew (2012) argue that electoral systems have a direct connection with the way in which the interests of ethnic minority groups are politically represented. They argue that the main shortfalls of the PR system in terms of ethnic minority representation lie in proportionality, accountability and pluralism. They examine minority representation in contemporary Bulgaria, which is a post-communist country in Eastern Europe that employs a closed-list PR electoral system, with a 4% electoral threshold for parliament entry. The two largest minority groups in Bulgaria are the Turks and the Roma, and both have experienced underrepresentation in the Bulgarian political sphere. Key to our discussion is the fact that Bulgaria has a constitutional ban on the formation of ethnic political parties.
In regards proportionality, Protsyk & Sachariew (2012) compare representation of both the Turks and the Roma under the post-1991 PR system and the pre-1991 SMD system (note that one political term included both systems, 1990-1991). They found that the Turkish were marginally better represented (0.5% better off) under SMD (1990) than under PR (1991), while the Roma were significantly more disadvantaged under SMD (1% worse off) (p.319). They note, however, that the smaller share of Turkish representatives was likely due to the party in questions’ new electoral protocol that required a number of ethnic Bulgarians in their list. Otherwise, the results found (see their paper for further detail) are typical in terms of preconceptions about PR v. SMD’s impact on minority representation. In saying this, it is important to remember that the number of representatives in both cases was not proportional to the minority’s relative population.
Another key motif in this debate is that of party politics - ideology and recruitment practices inclusive. In Bulgaria, recruitment of the Turkish and the Roma are dealt with differently between parties. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (hereafter ‘MRF’) party generally holds the highest proportion of minority representatives. Protsyk & Sachariew argue that this is the likely reason for mainstream parties’ not courting the Turkish vote in terms of having representatives in the lists, as the MRF tends to monopolize the vote; however, they also point out that under a PR system, a small amount of votes can have a significant impact on who gets elected, and as such there are probably factors relating to the historical division between the Bulgarian majority and the Turkish minority that also have an impact. The Roma, on the other hand, have been far better represented in the lists of major political parties; however, as Protsyk & Sachariew point out, this may be due to the electoral gains that this could grant these parties, particularly as the Roma community was not politically mobilized at the time of the PR changeover and as such not considered a political threat. This manifests itself in the lower election rate of such Roma candidates (as a result of a number of factors, including political bargaining and low Roma voting rates) – in such cases, Roma representation is considered by Protsyk & Sachariew as merely ‘nominal’ (p. 331).
In terms of PR system design, Protsyk & Sachariew (2012) identify the primary factor that influenced minority representation in Bulgaria as the increased electoral threshold. Theoretically, electoral thresholds are defensible in terms of representation and effectiveness
of the voting system. In this case, however, it had a negative influence on representation.
Firstly, as the Roma population constitutes only 4.68% of Bulgaria’s population, their
unanimous vote would only just pass the 4% threshold required for parliamentary entry (p.
326). As such, entry of Roma political groups was made very unlikely from the PR system’s
introduction. This has resulted in some coalitions forming between independent Roma
candidates or Roma groups and mainstream parties, usually exchanging electoral
candidacy for campaigning for the Roma vote; however, this has clearly not resulted in better
representation for the Roma (Roma representation has improved very little since 1991). For
the Turkish population, which constitutes 9.42% of the population, this threshold provided
slightly different challenges: firstly it is unlikely that two parties, even though theoretically
possible to achieve, would be able to successfully coexist in such electoral conditions;
likewise, the MRF’s usual 8% vote disavows the plausibility of even a single Turkish party
being successful– as such, the MRF becomes the most viable option in terms of
representation for Turkish political actors (pp.328-329). The MRF itself does not represent
the Turkish minority exclusively, due in part to the Bulgarian constitutional ban on ethnic
minority parties. As such, their candidacy allocation rules mean that Turkish candidates are
often passed over, usually in favour of ethnic Bulgarian candidates. This all results in
decreased accountability and responsiveness to the Turkish on the part of the MRF, and
reduced political competition within the Turkish community.
The Danish Case
Togeby (2008) argues that ethnic minorities are usually under-represented in government, but that Denmark is an exception to this rule, primarily due to its PR system of voting and its associated electoral rules – claiming that this is proven by Denmark’s almost proportional
minority representative to population ratio. Togeby focuses on local elections; in Denmark,
these are subject to a semi-open list PR system, either incorporating a ‘droop quota’
(distributional figure) when parties use semi-open lists, or allowing personal votes to decide
candidates in open lists. Incorporating both its threshold of exclusion and its threshold of
representation, parties in Denmark usually need around 5% of the vote in order to be elected
(p. 329). Ethnic minorities in Denmark consist primarily of immigrant groups, the two largest
of which are the Turks and the Yugoslavs. Denmark also has an electoral rule that allows
foreign citizens who have consistently held three years of legal residence the right to vote in,
and stand for, local elections.
Togeby (2008) first argues that the choice of either open or semi-open party lists influences
the likelihood of minority representatives being elected. However, he points out that the
prioritization of candidates is the same regardless of this choice, and that in Denmark, the
likelihood of an ethnic minority candidate being elected in spite of their placement towards
the bottom of the list is much higher than that of an ethnic majority candidate. He also
argues that the more successful election of minority candidates as opposed to ethnically
Danish candidates in some localities is supported by the propensity of ethnic minorities to
vote for their own candidates, and the way these votes translate to seat allocation in the PR
system. To exemplify this: in 2001, Hüseyin Arac, a Turkish candidate for the Aarhus local
council, received only 3% of the municipality’s vote; however, he received 18% of Social
Democrat votes in the Gjellerup area (noteworthy: in this area, Turkish voters are
overrepresented), which placed him fourth on the party list and resulted in his election
(pp.333-334). Note that he still received support from outside of Gjellerup and from ethnic
Togeby (2008) then explores the interrelation of votes and parties. In Denmark, the Social
Democrats engage the highest number of minority candidates. Togeby argues that this is not
only for electoral reasons, but also because Social Democrats represent the labour movement (migrant workers inclusive), they operate more openly in urban areas, which have a higher proportion of migrants than rural areas (where the Liberals more openly operate), and Social Democratic candidates are more likely to be elected, providing incentive for ethnic minority candidates to be involved with the party and vice versa. The best-represented minority group on local councils is the Turkish, who are also the largest immigrant group in Denmark. In 2001, around 40% of nominated Turks were elected (p. 337). Other minority groups fare worse than the Turkish, but are still represented to a better extent than in many other democratic countries. Togeby argues that this is due to the nature of PR in relation to party politics and population distribution – for example, Iranian candidates more often run with smaller left-wing parties, and the Iranian population is more thinly dispersed - and their candidates are less frequently elected.
Briefly, a note on the electoral rule that allows foreign citizens to participate in local
elections: in spite of this rule, the vast majority of minority candidates involved in the
electoral system are still Danish citizens, who speak Danish. Noteworthy, too, is that they are
usually well educated and from a higher socio-economic bracket than statistically typical
migrant worker ethnic groups. Togeby (2008) reports this, and then explains how the Danish
electoral system has still allowed for the political and social mobilisation of minority groups
in Denmark: the proportional and preferential features of the Danish system have allowed for
their effective representation via open channels for minority candidates, as well as an
associated social mobility in terms of politics as a career channel for members of ethnic
The Russian Case
Moser (2008) examines the political representation of ethnic minorities in Russia, which is a
post-communist democracy that, in the period between 1993 and 1999, employed a mixed
electoral system wherein citizens voted once for a party list under a PR system, and once for
an individual candidate in an SMD system. In Russia’s PR ‘tier’, there is a 5% electoral
threshold (p. 284). Russia’s ethnic minority makeup is characterised by numerous small
groups of non- ethnic Russian people, none of which represents a large enough proportion of
the overall population to overcome this threshold. The largest group is the Tatars (<4% of
Russia’s population), who, along with Ukrainians and the Chuvash, are the only groups to
comprise of more than 1% each of Russia’s total population (p. 281). Moser (2008) argues
that there is little evidence that PR systems are inherently better than SMD systems in regard
to minority representation, and rather that the variety of demographic and political factors
present in a nation-state are instrumental to the degree of political representation for minority
groups. He points out that ethnic minority groups will be variously affected by changes
between PR and SMD systems dependent on their own particular characteristics (particularly
cultural assimilation, population size and geographic concentration).
Moser (2008) begins this discussion by breaking Russian ethnic minorities into two primary groups: those that are ‘nonfederal minorities’ (sic) (groups that do not have a federally designated ethnic region e.g. Ukrainians, Latvians), and those that are ‘federal minorities' (groups that do have a federally designated ethnic region e.g. Tatars, Chuvash) (p. 282). The first group is considered more assimilated into majority Russian culture, and the second less so. This generally means that federal minorities are more geographically concentrated, which, Moser argues, would give the impression that federal minorities would have the lead in terms of electoral representation, but this has not always been the case. For instance, in the State Duma, nonfederal minorities were better represented than the federal minorities that characterized the area – in this instance, they were Ukrainians and ‘Belorussians’ (sic), whose common ethnic background with Russian voters gave them an advantage that resulted in a 39% share of minority elections despite the fact they only constituted 13% of the non Russian population (p. 284).
Moser (2008) also points out that there are multiple factors that can influence a candidate’s election that are different from, and may supersede, ethnicity. Groups vary in their placement in Russia’s social, political and economic hierarchy, with some facing more severe economic and social disadvantages. Further, the success of particular candidates can vary depending on their own success in politics, as well as their education, partisan affiliation and membership of other powerful organisations. In saying this, Moser argues that some factors (like partisanship) may depend upon the electoral system employed as opposed to the converse – and that factors like assimilation, and cultural similarity (linked directly to ethnicity), are more likely to influence a candidate’s election, regardless of the electoral system employed.
One of the clearest distinctions between the two systems was that federal minorities had
better representation under SMD than under PR, despite the fact that the overall number of
representatives increased. The change in voting rules at the 1995 election (which altered the
way that votes were distributed) also allowed for better representation for ethnic groups that
were geographically focused in their own federal areas, where support was more
More clearly – while minorities technically gained better representation statistically under an
SMD system, it is likely that the particular ethnic makeup of Russia contributed to this
significantly (namely, that it has numerous very small minorities as opposed to a few larger
ones), as did its ethnic federalization. In addition, some groups (namely, more assimilated,
geographically dispersed minorities) had better representation over time under both systems.
Discussion & Concluding Points
Analysing the link between electoral systems and ethnic minority representation inevitably
leads to a discussion on the assorted merits and shortcomings of, respectively and
comparatively, PR and SMD systems. The scholars in question here had varying views on
this talking point, as well as on the link itself.
Protsyk & Sachariew (2012) argued that there was a direct connection between electoral
systems and minority representation – and that, while PR is preferable, it still has drawbacks
(like variable proportionality, un-inclusive electoral thresholds and questionable
accountability of parties to their constituents). Togeby (2008) presented his ideas on the
assumption of a link, claiming that while minorities are often underrepresented in
government, PR was inarguably the better system in this regard and that Denmark was an
ideal case in favour of this fact. His analysis saw the main influences of the link on minority
representation as list type, propensity for minorities to vote for their own candidate, party
membership, and relative political mobility. Moser (2008) took a different tack, arguing that
there is little real evidence that PR is inherently better than SMD – rather, that contextual
factors influence the link between electoral systems and minority representation (namely:
cultural assimilation, population size and geographical concentration).
This is by no means the extent of scholarly debate surrounding the issue of electoral systems
in democracies. We can contend that such debate generally favors PR systems; Blais (1991)
argues this (notably, during the period we examined), as well as that multi-member districts
guarantee fairer representation of minority groups. Theory would certainly suggest this,
particularly when it equates proportionality with fair representation of minorities. The
scaffold built and analysed by Lijphart (2012) shows that while there is variation in
proportionality in PR systems, PR systems are undoubtedly more proportional than SMD
systems, except in presidential democracies. He makes the concession that some SMD
systems can facilitate minority representation, where there is policy encouraging the
nomination of ethnic minority candidates within such a system. We see similarities between
this assertion and Togeby’s (2008) Denmark PR case, although you could argue that this is
more indicative of the effect of electoral policy than of electoral systems alone.
What is more likely than a simple better-or-worse scenario, is Moser’s (2008) set of
arguments, the two most relevant of which are:
- That demographic and institutional factors are concomitant with electoral systems
when it comes to minority representation, and;
- That neither PR nor SMD is inherently better than the other, as each provides
advantages and disadvantages dependent upon the kind of minority group in question.
As such, it is fair to argue that the multiple social, political, cultural, economic (and so on)
factors at play in a democracy are more influential of variations in ethnic minority
representation than electoral systems are alone – but it would be a mistake to disregard their
impact entirely. In this sense, we can suppose that a state’s electoral system is linked to the
effective democratic representation of its ethnic minorities in multiple ways – but we cannot
conclusively rate one above the other. To improve upon scholars’ previous works would
require a serious evaluation of this idea, perhaps in relation to a broader theoretical
framework, or an electoral system scaffold more closely connected to ethnic minority
representation. Regardless, there is more work that needs doing.
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Gallagher, M., Laver, M. & Mair, P. (2011), ‘Chapter 11: Elections, Electoral Systems and Referendums’ in Representative Government in Modern Europe, 5th Ed., McGraw-Hill Education, Berkshire UK
Lijphart, A. (2012), ‘Chapter 8: Electoral Systems: Majority and Plurality Methods Versus Proportional Representation’ in Patterns of Democracy: government forms and performance in thirty-six countries, 2nd Ed., Yale University Press, Newhaven USA & London UK
Moser, R. G. (2008), ‘Electoral Systems and the Representation of Ethnic Minorities: Evidence from Russia’, Comparative Politics, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 273-292
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