Valerie Bunce - ConstitutionNet

Working Group1: Constitutional Design
Co-ordinator: Richard Simeon
Designing Multinational Democracies
Valerie Bunce
Executive Summary
How can the design of political institutions promote political stability, when
democracy is new and societies are diverse? This memo provides a three-part answer. First,
the design of political institutions matters, because institutional arrangements structure the
behavior of citizens, political parties and political leaders. Second, democracy in plural
societies must at the very least provide a definition of citizenship that crosses cultural
cleavages; guarantee civil liberties and political rights; and constrain the majority, while
recognizing and empowering minority communities. Finally, the key issue in selecting the
"right" political institutions under conditions of diversity is not to select either a unitary
model--where sovereignty is singular--or a federal system--where sovereignty is divided
between the center and political subunits. Rather, what is critical is to find ways to strike a
delicate balance. Majorities must be constrained and minorities must be legitimated and
empowered, but not to the point where identities are narrowed, interaction among
communities is discouraged, and the state becomes so weak that majorities are tempted to
suspend democracy while minorities are tempted to secede from the state.
Valerie Bunce
Designing Multinational Democracies
Democracy and Diversity
New democracies are fragile enterprises. They seem to be especially vulnerable under
two conditions: when domestic populations within the state vary along ethnic, linguistic and/or
religious lines, and when minority populations are large and geographically compact.
Diversity poses a problem for democracy for two reasons. One is that majorities can take
advantage of their weight within the population and exclude minorities from political rights,
representation and power. The other is that minority regions are tempted to secede from the
state--actions that often produce violence and sometimes lead to a suspension of democratic
The purpose of this memo is to focus on these unusually delicate democracies--which
constitute, we must remember, the international norm, rather than the exception. Most
democracies, new and old, feature sizeable linguistic, religious and/or ethnic minorities. At
the same time, most minorities are geographically-concentrated.
I will address one question.
In these diverse settings, which types of political
arrangements seem to be the most successful in promoting sustained cooperation between
majorities and minorities? The discussion will proceed in two stages. I will begin by offering
some generalizations about why the design of political institutions is important.
Next, I will focus on the costs and benefits of one fundamental institutional choice that
all diverse societies enclosed within a single state must confront. Should sovereignty be
defined as singular and, thus, all-encompassing within the borders of the state, or should
sovereignty be divided? For multinational, multi-religious and multi-linguistic states, this has
meant in practice one of three institutional choices. The first is a unitary state, as in, say,
France, Macedonia and Latvia, where sovereignty is singular.
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The other two options are variations on divided sovereignty. One is a federal system,
where sovereignty is allocated between the center and subunits. While the geography of
federalism can be blind to the distribution of minority communities (as in Germany and the
United States), the more common situation in diverse societies is for the boundaries of some or
all of the subunits to be drawn on the basis of territorially-compact minority communities.
This is the case, for example, in Spain, Canada, Belgium, India, Russia, the former Yugoslavia
and Georgia. The other approach to divided sovereignty--and one that is far less common--is
consociational democracy, as in the Netherlands. This is where religious, ethnic, and/or
linguistic groups are reserved representation within the government (including the
bureaucracy), according to a formula that reflects their weight within the population.
Institutional Dilemmas
In the discussion that follows, I assume that political institutions matter a great deal.
This is because the structure of the regime and the state shapes the political preferences,
resources and, thus, behavior of publics and politicians. Choices about political institutions,
therefore, can invest or disinvest in democracy, the existing boundaries of the state and, more
generally, political stability.
Indeed, this is an observation dear to the heart--or, more accurately, the interests-- of
most politicians. To take two recent examples of disinvestment: during the 1990s, two
dictators-in-the-making, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Vladimir Meciar of Slovakia, both
introduced changes in their electoral systems. Their logic in doing so was the same: to
expand their personal power and to reduce the political influence of the opposition by
redefining the electoral rules of the game (Croatia) or the boundaries of electoral
constituencies (Slovakia). In the latter case, the key was to disperse the Hungarian minority
among a number of districts and thereby neutralize their political impact.
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Institutions, in short, can make or break democracy, expand or constrain inter-ethnic
conflict. Having said that, however, three caveats are in order. One is that choice is always
constrained, in part because institutions are already in place and, thus, interests already defined
and power already distributed. Thus, institutional change is difficult, because it necessarily
threatens the prevailing distribution of political power. This is even the case when existing
institutional arrangements are widely recognized as suboptimal.
A case in point is the American electoral college.
While the 2000 presidential
elections advertised for all to see the costs of using states, not individual votes to select the
president, movements to eliminate this institution have stalled--in large measure because
representatives from small states are unwilling to give up their augmented power to choose
U.S. presidents. The larger point, however, is that changes in political institutions tend to
occur primarily during those rare moments in democratic politics when the desire and the
capacity for major changes are great--for example, following elections that deliver unusually
large governing mandates, during transitions from dictatorship to democracy when the
democratic opposition is both unified and popular, and after wars when third party peacemakers are in a strong position to dictate new institutions.
At the same time, no institution constitutes a perfect solution. Institutional choices
always involve trade-offs.
For example, proportional representation systems--where the
distribution of the vote translates directly into the distribution of party seats within the
legislature-- can be very good at registering the true distribution of popular preferences.
However, if preferences are quite diverse, governments may have difficulty forming, enacting
legislation and enduring. Moreover, such a system encourages the proliferation of parties
which in turn further widens the gap between the capacity of the system to register public
preferences and its capacity to convert representation into stable, effective and, thus,
responsive governance.
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Just as critical is the fact that political parties do not just respond to public preferences;
they also shape them. Thus, proportional representation does not just reflect the diversity of
public opinion; it can also contribute to that diversity. In multinational contexts, this means
that politicians, ever in search of a political support, have strong incentives to play up
differences among politicians, political parties and, thus, the electorate.
By contrast, winner-take-all electoral systems--where the largest vote-getting
candidate wins and all other competitors lose--are far better at reducing the number of
competitive parties and producing durable governments. All this is at the cost, however, of
short-changing representation. Those who vote for the losing candidates, even when their
numbers are large, are deprived of any representation. For example, in the American case,
with its two-party system, it could happen that Republicans could win the entire House of
Representatives, if they were to attract 50.1% of the votes in each electoral district. As a
result, 49.9% of the electorate--or those who voted for the Democrats-- would not be
represented. Votes, in short, are wasted.
Just as troubling are two other consequences of winner-take-all systems. One is that
they tend to discourage those parties and those political platforms that represent minority
viewpoints and/or minority populations. This is the familiar problem of the tyranny of the
majority. The other problem is that such electoral systems create incentives for the parties that
are competitive to blur programmatic differences among them. This can alienate publics from
the political process. As a result, electoral turnout declines and, even more worrisome, tends to
do so unevenly, with dominant groups often becoming over-represented among those citizens
who actually vote. The quality of democracy, in short, can suffer over time in winner-take-all
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The problem of trade-offs and, more generally, the inability of institutions to produce
perfect solutions, is particularly apparent, once we focus on the specific problems posed by
diverse populations. On the one hand, it is by now clear that certain approaches to the
management of diversity should be avoided at all costs. Thus, it is inadvisable to deny
difference, limit local cultural and political autonomy, and press for assimilation; to define the
nation in elite rhetoric and constitutional language in ways that exclude all those groups
different from the dominant ethnic, religious and/or linguistic group; to discourage the use of
minority languages in local education and administration; and to design the political system in
ways that empower the majority and constrain the minority.
While all of these approaches to the management of diversity were common when
nations and states were being built in the West during the late eighteenth through the early
twentieth centuries, they are considered today to be neither legitimate nor effective.
International norms supporting minority rights are well-defined and widely-embraced. At the
same time, we have higher standards for what constitutes a fully-fledged democratic order.
Finally, even if we were to prefer historical over contemporary standards, we would still face
another problem. In the real world, majorities find it all-too-easy to disempower minorities.
At the same time, minorities are well-aware of changing norms and find it easy, especially in
oppressive circumstances, to interpret the Western ideal of the nation-state not as one state,
one nation, but, rather, as each nation deserving (and then demanding) its own state. Practical
politics, and not just political ideals, then, requires institutional recognition of extensive
minority rights.
Having recognized the desirability of minority rights, however, we must also
recognize the limits to many of those arguments that celebrate diversity. There is in practice a
delicate balance between legitimating diversity and giving groups their own institutions, on the
one hand, and, on the other, locking these groups into singular and rigid identities, roles and
preferences. These developments block inter-group political, social and economic interaction;
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they destroy arenas of commonality (which often existed prior to institutional change); and
they contribute, as a result, to growing tensions among groups and to secessionist demands.
The problem here is that institutions are Janus-faced. Just as they can be construed as
solutions to important problems, so they can function as sources of subsequent problems.
While political institutions in multinational contexts can recognize, legitimate and empower
diversity, all of which support democracy, so they can isolate communities, undermine intercommunity cooperation, and segment nations and political, social and economic experiences
within the state. These consequences undermine democracy and political stability by tearing
society asunder. Such political arrangements can also undermine diversity within groups,
thereby replacing a healthy and natural pluralism with pressures for intra-group conformity.
The final caveat has to do with the assessment of institutional impact. It is extremely
hard to render clear judgments about the success or failure of institutional arrangements--in
large measure because of the tradeoffs already noted, but also because the real world of
institutional choice is usually among politically feasible, not ideal institutional alternatives. For
example, there are many reasons to criticize the current design of the Bosnian state. Put
simply, Bosnia features the worst case scenario--a two-part federation (a recipe for instability,
as we have learned from, say, the Belgian and Czechoslovak federations) and, like the former
Yugoslavia which disintegrated and in the process created Bosnia, very weak central political
and economic institutions joined with powerful regions that in effect nationalize political,
social and economic interactions and institutions. However, this is a postwar situation, which
required privileging short-term over longterm goals; that is, ending the war and forging some
cooperation among warring parties versus building a viable democracy and state. Put simply,
this may be the best that can be done in this situation. Indeed, ending war is a necesary, but
hardly sufficient condition for building a democratic order.
The more general point is that the goals of institutional change must recognize the
constraints of the situation and the range of politically plausible options. Diversity will always
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produce conflict among nations and language and religious communities. This is a given. The
important question is whether such conflicts can be mediated, and whether they reach the
point where democracy and the state are called into serious question.
Design of the State
Democratic states around the world offer several different approaches to the
management of diversity. One is to opt for a unitary state--the dominant choice of most new
and old democracies. This is where sovereignty is invested in one continuous governing
structure containing a center and subunits, with the subunits lacking any independent political
standing. Instead, they exist in order to carry out decisions made at the center. Put simply,
then, all citizens within a unitary state share the same--and only one--government.
The second option is divided sovereignty. Sovereignty can be divided by along
sectoral lines, as in, say, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where quotas allocated to specific
minority groups determine their representation within the political system and the
bureaucracy. Sovereignty can also be divided along territorial lines, as with the federal
systems of, say, Australia, Belgium, Canada, the United States, India and the Russian
Federation. In the first instance, sovereignty is shared among representatives of well-defined
groups within a single polity; in the second, citizens are ruled simultaneously by two or more
governments having shared, as well as independent powers.
There are, in addition, several other variations on federalism. One is whether relations
between the center and the subunits are symmetric or asymmetric. Put simply, is the entire
country divided into subunits and are the powers of each of these subunits equal? Another
distinction is whether the boundaries of subunits within a federation correlate with the
geographical distribution of ethnic, religious and/or linguistic cleavages.
Where the
correlation is high (and hardly accidental), the state is termed ethno-federal--a form that we
see in, say, Belgium, Canada, India, Bosnia, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia and the Russian
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Federation. Much less common is the drawing of subunits in ways that create diversity within
subunits, but that guard against dilution of minority voices. Nigeria has tried this approach,
albeit with limited success.
We can draw several generalizations about global patterns in institutional choices.
First, virtually all ethnofederations are asymmetric in form. Subunits, in short, are not usually
equal within most ethnofederal systems.
Second, the consociational approach is rarely adopted by new democracies--though
Dagestan, a republic within the Russian Federation, provides an exception. Just as important
is the fact that consociational democracies tend to be short-lived--as Lebanon, for example,
reminds us.
Third, institutional choices, once made, tend to stick over time. Thus, they resist major
amendments, especially once the democratic rules of the game have been consolidated. Thus,
it is unusual for unitary states to move in a federal direction, though this did happen in the
early stages of the transition to democratic politics in Spain, Moldova and Ukraine (and much
later in the democratic project in Belgium). Even more interesting is the fact that a shift in the
opposite direction--from a federal to a unitary system--is extremely rare. Indeed, federalism is
more likely to move in the opposite direction; that is, towards greater decentralization and
fragmentation of subunits.
Finally, majority-minority relations are particularly tense when an ethnofederal system
serves as the point of departure for the transition to democracy. Here, one can compare the
very different patterns of cooperation and conflict in Georgia, rump Yugoslavia, the Russian
Federation and Azerbaijan (all ethno-federal systems from the start) versus Latvia, Estonia,
India, and Spain (all of which began the transition as unitary states).
With these observations in mind, we can now ask the following question. What are
the costs and benefits in plural societies of uniting versus dividing sovereignty? Let us turn,
first, to unitary states. These arrangements have several advantages. One is that they have
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greater potential for creating capable states; that is, states that have the capacity to define and
defend borders, to extract resources, and to command compliance. This is important, because
democracy requires a capable state. For example, rule of law--which falls in the domain of the
state-- is a necessary condition for guaranteeing civil liberties and political rights. At the same
time, weak states invite secessionist movements--which, in turn, often generate violence and
suspension of the democratic rules of the game.
Yet another advantage of unitary states is that they encourage individuals to locate
common concerns and common commitments. They also free diverse individuals to adopt
multiple identities and multiple preferences. All of these offshoots of a unitary state structure
enhance inter-group interaction and expand opportunities for cooperation.
However, unitary states can also be vehicles for the tyranny of the majority. Such
states can be committed to assimilation, and they can under-represent minorities. This is
particularly the case where electoral systems are majoritarian (or winner-take-all); where
minorities are scattered among multiple districts and forfeit political impact, as a result; and
where citizenship laws discriminate against minorities. Just as problematic for minority rights
is where the political system is parliamentary rather than a separation of powers system, since
the latter plays a critical role in constraining the majority.
All of these observations suggest that the success of a unitary state in managing
diversity rests upon several other conditions. One is whether individual civil liberties and
political rights are guaranteed and consistently implemented across time, space and
circumstance. Another is whether the nation is defined in civic and not ethnic terms. Still
another is whether the electoral system "encourages" minority group representation--for
example, consolidating minorities in a limited number of electoral districts and using a
proportional representation system. Finally, are there constitutional provisions that guarantee
local autonomy--for example, in language usage--to those communities that have large
minority populations? Here, it is important to recognize the role of international actors. For
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example, precisely because Latvian and Estonian political leaders want admission to the
European Union, they have had to be more sensitive to the linguistic concerns of their large
Russian minorities.
The second option is consociational democracy. The advantages of this system are that
it legitimates diversity, guarantees representation of numerically significant groups, and
creates capable government (at least in theory). However, it also features a number of costs.
First, the conditions required for consociationalism are steep. What is required, for example,
are high levels of inter-elite trust, and agreement among these elites regarding the groups to be
represented and their appropriate weights within the government and the bureaucracy. Among
other things, this implies that the structure of the population be relatively stable.
Second, the underlying logic of consociationalism is elitist. The survival of the system
depends on cooperation among a small group of people, all of whom are by definition
privileged and all of whom wish to continue being so. This problem can also be applied to
groups as well. Tensions can develop between "in" and "ignored" groups, with the former
having the incentives and the power to exclude the latter.
Finally, consociationalism, a political solution to diversity, can construct and harden
economic and social divisions. This is most evident with respect to the development of the
party system and interest groups. Not surprisingly, therefore, consociationalism is rarely
durable, especially in societies divided not just by religion, but also by ethnicity--for example,
its checkered history in both Cyprus and Lebanon.
The final option is ethnofederalism--a popular approach. There are some good reasons
to favor ethnofederalism.
One is that it constrains majorities, while legitimating and
empowering minorities. In doing so, ethnofederalism gives minorities the incentives and the
capacity to remain in the state and to play by the rules of the democratic game. It is not
surprising, therefore, that there are some very good examples of successful ethnofederal
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For example, few thought that Indian democracy would survive in the face of, for
example, extreme poverty and diversity, the simultaneous founding of a new state and a new
democracy, and violent secession accompanying independence. Very soon after independence,
however, the Indian leadership adopted linguistic federalism--a decision that many see as
contributing to the stability of the system. Indeed, political struggles over the course of the
Indian democratic experiment have usually had to do less with regions trying to leave the
state, than with regions demanding their own states--inclusion, in short, rather than defection.
However, what also contributed to India's success were several other factors:
leadership, a strong state (reflecting the impact of both the nationalist movement and
socialization of the economy), single party rule, and a civic definition of the nation.
Ethnofederalism, however, has a number of costs. While it legitimates difference and
this is a plus, it can also, as already noted, create difference, narrow and lock in identities and
preferences, and reduce interactions among politically- and geogrpahically-defined
As a consequence, the prospects for inter-ethnic conflict increase.
It is
precisely these concerns that have been voiced about the Belgian and Canadian experiences
with ethnofederalism.
At the same time, ethnofederalism can weaken the state in two ways. First, it can
encourage minorities left out of the structure to demand inclusion--a process that can become
an endless regress and that can, as a result, place considerable burdens on the state.
Ethnofederalism can also encourage minorities built into the structure of the state to escalate
their demands. As a result, a dynamic can ensue wherein local communities grab sovereignty
where they can, thereby depriving the center of resources and creating in effect a dual legal
order. This is, for example, precisely what has happened in the Russian Federation and in
Georgia during their first ten years of existence as independent states.
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The main problem with ethnofederalism, therefore, is that it encourages diversity and
vertical conflict, while discouraging horizontal interaction and cooperation. As a result, for
ethnofederalism to work well, it must be combined with: 1) a strong court system that can
adjudicate conflicts between the center and the subunits; 2) a bicameral legislature, with one
house providing representation of the subunits, and; 3) clearly-defined rules regarding creation
of new units (which is precisely where India has been successful).
There are three conclusions we can draw from this brief discussion of institutional
choice and the management of diversity. First, in plural societies in particular, political
institutions are critical in shaping the quality of the democratic experience and the future of the
state. Second, at the very least, all democracies must both legitimate and empower diversity-for example, through the definition of citizenship, through constitutional guarantees of civil
liberties and political rights, and through representation systems that empower minorities
while constraining majorities. Third, no single approach to the design of the state--that is,
singular versus divided sovereignty--"solves" the problems introduced by diverse nations,
language communities and religions inhabiting the same political space. Rather, what matters
is finding ways to strike a delicate balance. Majorities must be constrained and minorities
must be legitimated and empowered, but not to the point of narrowing identities, preventing
interaction across communities, and leaving the central government so weak that majorities
are tempted to end democracy and minorities are tempted to leave the state.