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Many electoral systems across the world still exclude minorities – new MRG report

20 November 2006

The marginalisation of minorities in electoral systems can result in conflict, and in countries like Bosnia the post-war electoral systems entrench and aggravate ethnic division, a landmark new report by Minority Group International (MRG) says.

The report, which is the first global survey on minorities in electoral systems, says electoral systems are the skeletons on which the body of a peaceful or a conflict-ridden society grows.

“Elections have been seen as the main symbol of an end to conflict and the arrival of democracy. We saw this with Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq,” says Clive Baldwin, MRG’s Head of International Advocacy.

“But many electoral systems, including those designed by international organisations, still exclude minorities or entrench and aggravate ethnic or religious divisions,” he adds.

Desire to end blood-letting can lead to quick-fix solutions which are not desirable in the long-term. Cases such as Bosnia, where electoral systems are poorly designed, can exacerbate ethnic tensions.

In Bosnia, ethnic Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks elect representatives from their own groups. Other groups – such as the Jews and Roma – are completely excluded from contesting the Presidency and the Upper House of the Parliament. This is not just discriminatory, it also denies many people the right to choose their identity.

“This vulgar, identity-freezing, political system may well have been necessary to get signatures on paper in Dayton and to stem the blood-letting in Bosnia,” the report says. “But the preoccupation with three segments has produced bleak prospects for longer-term integration,” it adds.

The report also points to the case of Iraq where the electoral systems used in the first election in 2005 led to a serious under-representation of the Sunni minority. The system was rectified in the December 2005 election but with lasting impact. “Iraq is still struggling to reverse the polarization that occurred as a result of the marginalisation of Sunnis in the earlier election,” Baldwin says.

The report which presents evidence from 31 countries, argues that the inclusion of minorities in representative bodies is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of conflict prevention and long-term conflict management.

“There is not a single case of peaceful and democratic conflict avoidance in which the minority community is excluded from legislative representation,” it says.

But ensuring minority rights, is more complex than ensuring minority representation. The report recommends that when designing an appropriate electoral systems catering to minorities, the historical, demographical context and communal factors be taken into account.

“It is certainly a starting point. If you don’t have a representative electoral system in place a county can slide into conflict or a conflict can worsen. You have to get it right at first or else it is downhill all the way,” Baldwin says.

For more information or to arrange interviews with Clive Baldwin, please contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].

Notes to editors

  • Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is a non governmental organisation working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide.
  • Andrew Reynolds is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His research and teaching focus on democratisation, constitutional design and electoral politics.