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The presence of politically organised minority groups is often viewed as a source of instability or conflict within a democracy. Yet in the countries of central and eastern Europe, democratic backsliding is more common in states that lack meaningful ethnic mobilisation. Far from undermining democracy, the presence of mobilised minority groups can act as a bulwark against backsliding because these groups have a stake in pursuing liberal political arrangements that limit the power of the majority.

Jan Rovny

April 6, 2023


The democratisation of central and eastern Europe was celebrated as a historical success story. A European subcontinent moved from communist authoritarian regimes to reasonably functioning democracies based on competitive political systems with the rotation of power.

However, by the second decade of the 21st century, the grapes of democracy started to sour. A number of countries, most notably Hungary and Poland, elected leaders and parties who explicitly aim to circumscribe pluralism, undermine independent media, and limit judicial oversight, establishing what the Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orbán, calls “illiberal democracy”. Academic research on this democratic backsliding proposes several important causes, focusing primarily on the political and economic transition of the region.

This research generally overlooks the fact that democratic backsliding tends to take place in societies without ethnic mobilisation – where ethnic minorities are politically insignificant. While some countries in central and eastern Europe, such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, have few politically organised minorities, other countries in the region, such as Bulgaria, Estonia or Latvia, have important and politically mobilised ethnic groups. Considering the relationship between ethnic party vote share and democratic backsliding (figure 1), backsliding clearly tends to occur significantly more in societies without ethnic mobilisation. Why is this the case?


Figure 1: Cumulative backsliding (total annual democratic regression from 1990-2020) and ethnic party vote share

To answer this question, my research focuses on the interplay between ethnic politics and political competition, and highlights the important positive role played by significant, politically organised ethnic minorities. To the extent that ethnic minorities are permanent minorities – that is that they are unable to exit their minority status either by creating an independent state, or by joining their ethnic kin state – they seek to preserve their group identity in a state they cannot control. In short, permanent minorities seek protection from the tyranny of the majority.


Ethnic minorities and democracy

The most effective group preservation of permanent minorities is the pursuit of liberal political arrangements that would limit the power of the majority, and grant rights and liberties to individuals and minority groups. Politically organised minority groups thus seek to limit the tyranny of the majority through counter-majoritarian institutions, such as legal oversight of the executive, as well as the preservation of legal equality, individual and group rights, and civil liberties. This political effort on the part of minority representatives bolsters liberal politics and reinforces liberal democracy.

This is counter to most expectations. Ethnic politics is traditionally seen as a source of trouble. The extensive literature on ethnic politics has few positive expectations concerning ethnicity and political outcomes. It views ethnicity as a potential source of conflict needing institutional mediation to maintain peaceful relations among groups. The political impact of unfettered ethnicity is seen as potentially leading to ethnic particularism that undermines collective interests, impairs democracy, destabilises polities, prevents effective provision of public goods, and on occasion descends into ethnic conflict and civil war.

Departing from the central observation that ethnic minorities are keenly concerned about their self-preservation, I argue that a set of political contexts lead them to seek liberal remedies to their minority predicament. This ethnic liberalism is conditional and can be cross-pressured by various factors. When ethnic minorities face deep ethnic animosity and cannot find any partners among the majority; when ethnic identity is deeply entrenched in religion which is by definition exclusive, particularistic and conservatising; or when ethnic groups are too small or too weak to mobilise and successfully contest elections, their liberalism fails. Also, when minorities see a path to exiting their minority status, they may prefer destabilising the state instead.


Counterbalancing illiberalism

Mobilised ethnic minorities, however, generally provide an opportunity for liberal democracy. Ethnic minority representatives – either ethnic minority parties, or broader political organisations seeking ethnic support – pursue the reinforcement of civil rights and liberties, strengthening the liberal political pole in the country. The presence of significant ethnic minorities induces the contestation of ethnic issues across the polity.

This causes polarisation, mobilising illiberal backlash against minorities on the one hand, while also inducing support for rights and liberties even among some members of the majority on the other. This alters the political dynamics in heterogeneous societies. While emboldening illiberals, it simultaneously reinforces their liberal opposition. Moderate parties face a wider set of political partners, and parties supporting liberal rights counterbalance illiberals.

Ethnic representatives tend to be useful partners. Previous research shows that they have loyal electorates, and also tend to be more flexible in governing coalitions. Their focus on civil rights and liberties is offset by openness on other issues, such as the economy. They are thus useful collaborators, able to support governments of diverse moderate parties. When in government, ethnic representatives ensure the maintenance of basic counter-majoritarian principles that are central to democratic functioning. Even when they seek rewards via corrupt collusion, they combine it with the push for principles.

The presence of mobilised ethnic minorities thus acts as a bulwark against democratic backsliding. Ethnic minority representatives reinforce liberal democracy due to their inherent interest in protecting their group in the face of the majority. While ethnic politics create an illiberal backlash, they simultaneously enable a liberal counterbalance.

Figure 2 demonstrates how the strength of ethnic and constitutional liberal parties interacts with illiberal forces. While illiberal forces are the greatest source of democratic backsliding, ethnic and constitutional liberal parties act as a significant bulwark against the corrosive effects of illiberals on democracy. When the vote share of ethnic or constitutional liberal parties is low, increasing illiberal strength greatly erodes democracy. However, when ethnic parties and constitutional liberals are strong, the corrosive effect of illiberals on democracy disappears. The models control for GDP per capita, income inequality, unemployment levels, quality of government, and EU membership.


Figure 2: Predicting democracy as a function of illiberal vote share, moderated by ethnic and constitutional liberal vote

Note: Models control for GDP per capita, income inequality, unemployment levels, quality of government, and EU membership. V-Dem data 1990-2020.


Finally, figure 3 shows the effect of ethnic minority government participation on democracy, while including the same controls. It demonstrates that when ethnic minority representatives participate in government, a country’s democracy score is significantly higher. These dynamics are absent in societies that do not have significant ethnic minorities that can mobilise and influence political competition.


Figure 3: Predicting democracy as a function of ethnic party government participation

Note: Models control for GDP per capita, income inequality, unemployment levels, quality of government, and EU membership. V-Dem data 1990-2020.


Ethnic politics thus is not uniformly negative. Permanent ethnic minorities have a keen sense of preventing the tyranny of the majority, which is central to democratic functioning. Seeking to limit the majority, ethnic representatives infuse politics with liberal aims. While this emboldens a reaction of the nationalist radical right that is the key drivers of democratic decline, it simultaneously engenders a liberal opposition.

Countries with mobilised ethnic minorities see the presence of a sometimes-virulent illiberals, who are, however, less likely to gain monopolistic positions of power. As a result, countries with mobilised minorities maintain a liberal political pole underpinned by structured electoral groups in existential need of equality, civil rights, and liberties. It is for this reason that democratic backsliding is most pronounced in countries with small or politically unorganised minorities, like Hungary and Poland, while democracy is more resilient in heterogeneous countries with large and politically organised minorities, such as Estonia or Latvia.

These findings have two important implications. First, they suggest that ethnic politics is not just about group particularism but can produce ideological content of political competition. Second, the illustration that ethnic mobilisation associates with democratic improvement anywhere is novel, as it is counter to the standing knowledge and our expectations.


Jan Rovny is an Associate Professor at Sciences Po in Paris.

This article was first published on the EUROPP Blog run by the London School of Economics and Political Science on 2 February 2023. For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper in the American Political Science Review.


The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

Photo credit: Ilia Markov via Wikimedia Commons

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