Centripetalism: cooperation, accommodation and integration

Benjamin Reilly

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    Centripetalists believe that the best way to manage democracy in divided societies is not to replicate existing ethnic divisions in the legislature and other representative organs, but rather to put in place institutional incentives for cross-ethnic behaviour in order to encourage accommodation between rival groups. As such, they typically reject elitedriven approaches such as consociationalism, and the reification of ethnicity that goes with it, and instead seek to dilute the ethnic character of competitive politics and promote outcomes which favour the political centre. To do this, centripetalists place a premium on promoting cross-ethnic electoral and party systems that make politicians reliant on the votes of different ethnic communities to gain election. In so doing, they advocate political institutions that can help to break down the salience of ethnicity rather than fostering its representation. Perhaps the clearest distinction between centripetalism and other approaches is foundin their contrasting recommendations regarding the design of electoral systems. One of the most fundamental relationships in political science is that between electoral systems and the representation of minorities. Proportional representation (PR) is frequently advocated as a key reform in ethnically plural societies to ensure fair representation of minorities and majorities alike. However, because PR systems encourage smaller parties they tend to fragment the party system and can encourage parties to craft their appeals around narrow sectarian interests, such as ethnicity – precisely because they can be secure in gaining seats by appealing to a relatively narrow section of society. In addition, there is a difference between representation and power: a minority can be fairly represented in a legislature but remain completely shut out of political power in government. For this reason, centripetalists often see PR as a cause of rather than a solution toproblems of ethnic politics. Instead of focusing on minority representation, they recommend electoral rules which can make politicians reciprocally dependent on the votes of members of groups other than their own, and which more broadly favour multiethnic political parties rather than ethnically exclusive ones. Specific institutional reforms toachieve such outcomes include the use of cross-regional or vote-transfer electoral systems, political party laws which require cross-national party organization, and legislative selection procedures which encourage median, centrist outcomes. These and other kinds of institutions give parties and candidates electoral incentives to ‘pool votes’ across ethnic lines, centripetalists contend, and can thus encourage vote-seeking politicians to reach out across the ethnic divide and, in so doing, help to take the heat out of ethnic politics (Horowitz 1985, 1991). In an earlier book on electoral engineering for divided societies (Reilly 2001), I exam-ined the record of centripetalism as a conflict management strategy, and identified three facilitating components which seem to recur across different countries and contexts:1 the presentation of electoral incentives for campaigning politicians to reach out to and attract votes from a range of ethnic groups other than their own, thus encouraging candidates to moderate their political rhetoric on potentially divisive issues and forcing them to broaden their policy positions;2 the presence of multiethnic arenas of bargaining such as parliamentary and executive forums, in which political actors representing different identity groups have an incentive to come together and cut deals on reciprocal electoral support, and hence perhaps on other more substantial policy issues as well; and3 the development of centrist, aggregative and multiethnic political parties or coalitions of parties which are capable of making cross-ethnic appeals and presenting a complex and diverse range of policy options to the electorate.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationConflict Management in Divided Societies: Theories
    Editors Stefan Wolff and Christalla Yakinthou
    Place of PublicationOxon
    PublisherRoutledge, Taylor & Francis Group
    ISBN (Print)9780415563734
    Publication statusPublished - 2012


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