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Using Majoritarian Democracy to Prevent Violent Ethnic Conflict?


Huan Wang, Ph.D. New York University











Chinese Public Affairs Quarterly

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Although societies are composed of individuals and are fabricated together through actions and interactions by individuals, yet in many social especially political contexts, such actions or interactions are so highly organized that individuals participate more as coordinated members of their respectively organized collectives than as free-will individuals by themselves. In these contexts, the outcomes are determined largely on the collective or aggregate level. 1 Almost all countries in the world are multiethnic and many are deeply divided ethnically in their political and/or economic lives. Some of these societies suffered violent conflicts between/among ethnic groups. (Horowitz 2000; Horowitz 2001; Lijpart 1990) To alleviate or even to prevent such massive losses of social welfare through institutional arrangement, if possible, is an important issue in social sciences.

Przeworski (1999) argues that Schumpeterian minimalist democracy, “a system in which rulers are selected by competitive elections”, is an arrangement that could help to regulate conflicts between political forces when it is in place. 2 Since Przeworski’s conception of Schumpeterian minimalist democracy imply losers in the elections be refrained from governance, it is largely equivalent to Lijphart’s conception of majoritarian democracy, which is one of the two major models of democracy with alternative named consensus democracy. (Lijphart 1999, 2- 4) Then, compared with other forms of institutional arrangements such as dictatorship, consensus democracy (the essence of which is institutional power-sharing) or state partition, is majoritarian democracy theoretically better at preventing violent ethnic conflicts in the ethnically divided societies? 3 This paper tries to answer this question largely through sociological analysis of strength contrast between politically effective ethnic groups, including those effective only economically but have potentiality to be politically effective, in different societies. And on this sociological analysis, the paper will also briefly discuss whether sustainable majoritarian democracy could be successfully established even in societies where majoritarian democracy is the optimal arrangement in comparative statics.

In the real world, majoritarian democracy seems cannot prevent all violent ethnic conflicts. Many of the majoritarian democratic societies also experienced violent ethnic conflict, especially riots. (Horowitz, 2001) Even worse, competitive elections sometimes provide incentives for ethnic entrepreneurs to mobilize voters ethnically and such mobilizations may result in violent ethnic conflict.

1 Przeworski (1991: 38-39) argues that the “relevant actors are not abstract individuals but political forces.” Even worse, the individuals’ preferences would not necessarily abide the political leaders. Take even the representative governments for example, Manin (1997: 163-167) argues that representatives elected may not be compelled to abide by their constituents’ preferences or even their own promises partly because of there are no “imperative mandates and discretionary revocability of representatives” and partly because of availability of other strategic choices and explanations expected to be acceptable later.

2 The expected durability of democracy is another issue. (Przeworski 1999; Przeworski et al 1996)

3 Since institutional power sharing is the essence of consensus democracy (or consociational democracy), for analytical convenience, this paper will use the notion institutional power sharing as an alternative institutional arrangement to majoritarian democracy (or Schumpeterian minimalist democracy).


Using Majoritarian Democracy to Prevent Violent Ethnic Conflict?


Then, why we value majoritarian democracy in the ethnically divided societies since the capacity to regulate violent conflict is argued to be the sole benefit of majoritarian democracy? 4 (Przeworski 1999) The fundamental reason is that we probably do not have any better alternative for democracy according to the criteria of violence prevention. Thus it would be appropriate to first discuss the comparative statics between majoritarian democracy and other available institutional arrangements.

Besides majoritarian democracy, there are three alternatives of institutional arrangement for an ethnically divided society to apply for its future political order/orders. These alternatives are:

dictatorship, institutional power-sharing, and partition. Dictatorship refers to the regime type that has no competitive election to change its government. Institutional power-sharing refers to the regime type that has “the participation of the representatives of all significant groups in the government in the country” with institutionally guaranteed minimum proportionality of political representation. (Lijphart 1977: 25; Lijphart 1990) 5 Partition is a radically different institutional arrangement for ethnically divided society. It means that the society itself will be cut from an entirety under one political order into two or more societies under separate political orders. Two things need to be pointed out here. The first thing is that both majoritarian democracy and institutional power-sharing have election as mechanism in the national level while the former does not institutionally require minimum proportional representation. Essentially, the former is a system of plurality from the formalistic authorization perspective of representation while the latter is a system of proportional representation from the descriptive correspondence view of representation. (see Pitkin 1967: 43 & 61) The second thing is that there could be actual power- sharing without institutional power-sharing. Take the Burundi Tutsi military dictatorship from 1989 to 1993 for example; it has significant level of actual power-sharing effort for the national governmental cabinet without formal institutional stipulation. (Lemarchand 1998: 131-134) Here are two examples of institutional power-sharing. The first is Netherlands. Power-sharing was institutionalized through proportional representation of in important governance entities such as the Social and Economic Council, High Council of Labor, and Central Secretariat for Agriculture and Horticulture among the four major religious/ideological blocks with strong correlation with five political parties as social organizations. (Lijpart 1968: especially 112-115) Another example is South Africa, both the 1993 interim constitution and the 1996 permanent constitution adopted proportional representation. The former even has guaranteed representation in the executive cabinet and deputy presidency upon 5 percent and 20 percent national vote respectively. (Maphai


The criteria for evaluation between these institutional arrangements would be based the quality of political order that they can provide respectively. And political order causally depends on the mutual advantage for politically effective groups of the society under discussion. (Hardin, 1999) For any society, the vital issue is to provide political order. The institutional arrangement of how to choose rules is fundamental to the societal members’ welfare. Since in the society, citizens already have relevant knowledge about their own identities in the political settings, to

4 As an institutional arrangement in the Schumpeterian minimalist sense, majoritarian democracy per se will be treated as of no intrinsic value in this paper. And Przeworski (1999) convincingly argues that all other instrumental values of majoritarian democracy are not well founded. 5 Lijphart (1977: 25; 1990) listed four characteristics of institutional power-sharing (or consociational democracy). I think in the regime type level the other two characters, “a high degree of autonomy for these groups” and “minority veto”, are not necessary.


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choose one institutional arrangement instead of another is quite different from the choice behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance. The two stage processing is not the case since individuals can expect pretty precisely who will be selected as rulers through the method of selecting and the social situations. For example, majoritarian democracy would surely lead to Hutu leadership in the government in Burundi. Thus, we need to carefully study the social situations of the ethnically divided societies. Especially to study the strength contrast between the potentially politically effective ethnic groups to see which institutional arrangement is more mutually advantageous to these ethnic groups.

In almost all economically well-developed multiethnic countries, there are very rare cases of violent ethnic conflict. In fact, the so-called “ethnic conflicts” in Northern Ireland and Spain are arguably not ethnic conflicts but violence carried out by some entrepreneurs in the names of some groups that they cannot represent. They neither have the group members’ authorization nor virtually acting for the group members’ interests. 6 For these societies, the coordination information cannot be acquired via mere reading of ethnic consensus. Elections provide vital mechanism “for everyone about who would mutiny and against what” along other cleavages especially economic policy positions. 7 In contrast, dictatorship does not generate such information. (Przeworski, 1999) In this aspect, whether to have majoritarian democracy or have institutional power-sharing does not matter much for this situation. Whatever the polity already exists would work well because the for these societies “what we ordinarily describe as democratic ‘politics’ is merely the chaff.” 8 (Dahl 1956: 132) Such empirical examples are not rare especially in democratic societies of Western Europe and North America. (Gurr, 2000, and Lijphart, 1968)

This paper will focus on economically less developed with potential ethnic competition for the control of general political order where political supports for political organizations are largely ethnic census. In this case, the institutional arrangement has to be in accordance with the relative power of the ethnic groups under consideration. Otherwise, the arrangement will be broken up again and every group will be worse off under the following chaos.

The relative strength of ethnic groups is determined by several factors: population, group resources, and the degree of social organizations. Majoritarian democracy is an institutional arrangement based mainly (though not exclusively) on one dimension of the factors – current population contrast. Institutional power-sharing is based fundamentally on current population contrast but with substantial consideration on overall relative strength of the recent past. Dictatorship is purely based overall relative strength of the past.

Thus, when the most powerful ethnic group is the most populous ethnic group in an ethnically divided society, majoritarian democracy would be a possible choice for the overall political order. Although majoritarian democracy does not have much revelation value inter- ethnically, it does have revelation value intra the majority group to prevent potential conflict within since there are subgroups with different interests and expectations. (Gorenburg 2000) In

6 For theoretical explanation on representation in these two senses, see further Pitkin (1967), especially pages 38-39 and page 173.

7 Individuals have many identities simultaneously. Gould (1995) argues that people participate collective action on the basis of certain identity at a specific situation. This identity is called participation identity.

8 Both majoritarian democracy and institutional power-sharing in this paper are in Dahl’s (1956, 1971) sense polyarchal democracy.


Using Majoritarian Democracy to Prevent Violent Ethnic Conflict?


this sense, majoritarian democracy is better than dictatorship. And institutional power-sharing inter-ethnically may not be advantageous for the ethnic majority without substantial economic growth and social affiliation caused. According to Gurr (1993: 327-338), in most countries in the world, the minority groups do not have either political or economic dominance over the majority group. In these societies, the question is quite another one -- how to protect the minorities’ right and give them a fair division of social goods.

In some societies, ethnic minorities have economic dominance in resource control while the majorities (or the relatively most populous group) have political dominance. For example, the ethnic minorities in the countries as follows: the former Yugoslavia (Slovenes, 8%), Indonesia (Chinese, 3%), Malaysia (Chinese, 34%), Pakistan (Hindus, 2%), Ivory Coast (Lebanese, 1%), Kenya (Kikuyu, 21%), Mauritania (Kewri, 20%), and Rwanda (Tutsi, 11%). 9 (Gurr 1993: 327- 338) For these societies, either majoritarian democracy, institutional power-sharing, or dictatorship by the majority would largely work on the overall political order. However, institutional power-sharing would arguably be more beneficial not only for the minorities, but also for the majority groups through two ways. The first is through providing stronger incentive for economic investment by minorities to benefit the overall societies. The second is through alleviating the desires of the minorities to use their economic resources to organize political oppositions. Yet the second way would be more limited than the first way with stricter population constraints to change the overall strength contrast. And for very rare cases, the minority groups are geographically concentrated and the majority groups are seriously deterred by international pressure from military suppression, partition would be viable. Slovenes of the former Yugoslavia is such a luck minority.

In some societies, the politically dominant groups are minorities in the whole population and they are not economically dominant. Their dominance mostly depends on better social organization and control of governmental establishments especially military forces. Such societies in clued Syria (Alawis, 13%), Ghana (Ewe, 13%), Kenya (Luo, 13%), and Nigeria (Hausa/Fulani, 29%). (Gurr 1993: 327-338) If ethnicity is the participation identity in such societies, majoritarian democracy would not be a mutually beneficial institutional arrangement at all. The better choice would be limited institutional power-sharing for the politically dominant groups to get economic benefits through providing greater economic incentives for investment of other groups. However, the degree of power-sharing will be well limited because political dominance is the fundamental means to get better share of social goods. To lose more power over certain threshold would lead to net loss of social welfare for that group and its leaders. On the other hand, overly severe political control would motivate the other more populous and/or economically more powerful groups to seek opportunity to mutiny. Thus, that’s part of the reason why dictatorship would be less beneficial than limited institutional power-sharing while is of more mutual advantage than majoritarian democracy. And partition of other groups would be unlikely to be successful unless there is international intervention.

In some societies, ethnic minorities are dominant both economically and politically. Such societies include Iraq (Sunni Arabs, 21%), Burundi (Tutsi, 18%), Cameroon(Bamileke, 27%), Guinea (Susu, 16%), Liberia (Americo-Liberians, 3%), Madagascar (Merina, 26%), South Africa (Europeans 14%), Uganda (Baganda, 16%). (Gurr 1993: 327-338) And notably, Rwanda after

9 The data is as of the year 1990. As will be discussed further, Tutsi in Rwanda became both ecomonically and politically dominant after the 1994 civil war. (Gourevitch 1998; Mamdani 2001)


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the 1994 civil war also became one of these societies. The 1993 brutal genocide in Burundi is argued to be a direct result caused by the failed democratization tried under pressure from the international community. The reason is that “it threatened the ethnocratic power base of a Tutsi minority that controls the army, security forces, and key state bureaucracies.” 10 (Gurr 2000: 188) Dictatorship with certain degree of actual power-sharing would be more viable than dictatorship without actual power-sharing. But majoritarian democracy and institutional power-sharing would not be viable for most cases if the economic development is not advanced enough. The South Africa case is an outliner, both because of its fairly high economic development and because of inclusiveness of the African National Congress and the extraordinary credibility of its leader Nelson Mandela to make the institutional power-sharing arrangements credible to the economically and politically dominant Europeans that “some key institutions of the state – including military, the police, and the civil service” would be left intact and “[p]reexisting patterns of ownership and control of property” would be protected. (James and Caliguire, 1999:


In some societies, there are more than one politically powerful minority ethnic groups. 11 Such societies include Lebanon (Maronite Christians 36%, Sunnis 20%), Sierra Leone (Creoles 2%, Limba 8%), Togo (Ewe 22%, Kabre 14%), Zaire (Luba 6%, Lingala 20%). For such societies, majoritarian democracy could hardly be established. Either institutional power-sharing agreed upon between the relevant ethnic groups when learned of the impossibility to dominate others after long period of conflict, or dictatorship established after final dominance reached through conflict would be better than majoritarian democracy. Until certain degree of economic growth and social integration through economic affiliation is reached. Then the stakes in political games become less appealing comparative to other social productive alternatives. In fact, as aforementioned, in advanced industrial societies, especially Western European countries where there are also more than one politically effective ethnic groups, institutional power-sharing successfully solves the problem on the basis that politics is largely the chaff. Take Netherlands for example, there exists strong national consensus that “does contain the crucial component of a widely shared attitude that the existing system ought to be maintained and not be allowed to disintegrate.” (Lijpart 1968: 103)

Thus, since majoritarian democracy and even institutional power-sharing in many contexts does not serve the mutual advantage of at least some politically effective ethnic groups, it is very understandable that some efforts for democratization would fail because of this reason while some others may succeed. Empirical evidence shows that the relationship between democratization and violent ethnic conflict is bifurcated. Some societies make successful democratization or partial democratization and have less ethnopolitical conflict than autocracies, 12 while others failed in democratic transition and fell into violent ethnic rebellions. (Gurr, 2000) Snyder (2000) also points out that “democratization increases the risk of nationalist and ethnic conflict in the developing world, but the strength and outcome of this propensity varies in different circumstances”.

10 For detailed strength contrast between Tutsis and Hutus as background for the 1993 election, see Lemarchand


11 There may exist no other majority group at all, Lebanon for example, or there are majority groups. The latter is more often the case. 12 Named new democracies and transitional regimes respectively. (Gurr, 2000)


Using Majoritarian Democracy to Prevent Violent Ethnic Conflict?


Yet this does not mean that all failures of democratization imply that majoritarian democracy is not one of the viable equilibriums of the game of political order. Transition from one constitutional arrangement to another equally beneficial or even Pareto dominant one may entail massive re-coordination costs. Thus the dynamic process of democratization may be trapped into some worse situation of violent conflict merely because that the massive costs of transition changed the expected utilities of members of the relevant ethnic groups and therefore majoritarian democracy (or even institutional power-sharing) becomes less appealing during the prolonged chaos of transition even if majoritarian democracy will be mutually beneficial if the society continues to finish the transition.

Another possibility is that even if majoritarian democracy would be more mutually beneficial according to comparative statics, there may lack some focal point for the politically effective ethnic groups to re-coordinate from their former polity. If the coordination is hard to achieve instantly, there will be prolonged chaos and net social welfare losses. In fact, once majoritarian democracy is firmly established in such societies, it would become self-enforcing and begin to help to prevent certain kinds of ethnic conflict, which is more severe than ethnic riots, such as ethnic rebellion. Statistical studies indicate that there is a significant negative relationship between established democracy and ethnic rebellion. In democratic societies, ethnopolitical groups are more likely to use strategies of protest than rebellion; in autocratic societies, ethnopolitical groups are more likely to use rebellion as strategy than protest. (Gurr, 2000) When majoritarian democracy will be a mutually beneficial arrangement for the politically effective groups while there lacks re-coordination efforts, it could be theoretically coordinated with external coordinators. Ironically, however, the problem is that the international communities are not interested in supporting peaceful re-coordination. The efforts to intervene are almost exclusively to the places that there are already ethnic civil wars. (Brown et al 2001; Kaufmann


A core for coordination plus tipping mechanism may help some society to establish majoritarian democracy. Even in the extremely unfavorable social situation of group strength contrast, there are possibilities to have successful democratization though the chances would not be many. It depends on several conditions, one of which is some extremely accommodating and well-organized political organization with great credibility to function as a focal point to coordinate the future political order under democracy. South Africa is a success from dictatorship to institutional power-sharing and has been successful till present from institutional power-sharing to majoritarian democracy. 13 Even in Burundi, before the series of tragedies, Prince Louis Rwagasore as “an extraordinarily popular figure… might have spared his nation the traumas that would soon tear it apart” had he not been assassinated right after overwhelming victory in the 1961 legislative election under Belgian administration. As of ganwa origin, his party Uprona won across the ethnic line “approximately 80 percent of the votes cast, and 58 seats in the legislative assembly out of a total of 64.” (Lemarchand 1998: 53-54) 14

For a constitutional arrangement to work, it has to be one of the several equilibriums of the game between politically effective social groups. (Hardin 1999) Otherwise, even if majoritarian

13 For example, the 1996 constitution dropped off the provision in the 1993 interim constitution for the government of national unity from. 14 Ganwa is the princely elites who “were generally perceived as a distinct ethnic category, not identified with either Hutu or Tutsi. By 1972 they had become virtually assimilated into the Tutsi frame of reference.” (Lemarchand 1998: 15)


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democracy is luckily established, it will sooner or later fail in the society. And since the strength contrast may change overtime, majoritarian democracy may become no longer self-enforcing in the future and thus fail. As Przeworski et al (1996) point out, statistically except for “a country where per-capita income exceeds $6,055” there are chances for democratic systems to fail. 15 In this sense, Lemarchand should not feel so sad about the failed democratization under the leadership of Prince Louis Rwagasore. The achievement would be so fragile even if made to work for a while. What made South Africa partially out of the trap is more because of its economic achievements.

In conclusion, for ethnically divided societies where politics is fundamental for social interest acquisition, the relative mutual advantage of the several institutional arrangements depends on the strength contrast determined on several dimensions between the ethnic groups. Where the politically dominant ethnic group is also the most populous group in the society, majoritarian democracy would be better arrangement than dictatorship and may also arguably be better than institutional power-sharing. Where the politically or both politically and economically dominant group is ethnic minority, majoritarian democracy is very likely to be the worst choice. At least for a substantially long period of time, dictatorship would be better for conflict prevention and political order maintenance. Limited institutional power-sharing would probably also workable. For societies where a minority group is economically dominant, institutional power-sharing would be the most mutually beneficial arrangement. Majoritarian democracy would also work largely as the second best choice. For societies where there are more than one politically powerful ethnic group competing for control over political order, dictatorship might be the first choice and institutional power-sharing be the second. Partition is rare since populations in most societies are very much intermingled and politically dominant group would be reluctant to give up repression.

Thus, majoritarian democracy should not be introduced to certain societies with unfavorable social situations where majoritarian democracy would not be mutually beneficial for politically effective ethnic groups. Even for the societies where majoritarian democracy is comparatively better than the other institutional arrangements, we need to be careful that democratization may not be successfully achieved. And even if majoritarian democracy is established, there are chances that it will fail if the economy is not developed enough. Thus, careful considerations have to be taken before efforts to use majoritarian democracy to prevent violent ethnic conflicts.

15 Przeworski et al (1996) tested the correlation between survival of democracy, including both majoritarian democracy and institutional power-sharing (i.e. consensus democracy), and a few independent variables including affluence, economic performance, income inequality, international climate, political learning, and the effect of institutions. Three factors are particularly relevant for the survival of democracy in general. The factor of per capita income is deemed the most vital factor. He suggests, (1) democracies are more likely to survive in wealthy countries; (2) they are more likely to last when no single party dominates the legislature and heads of governments change not too infrequently; and (3) they are more likely to endure in parliamentary democracies than in pure presidential ones for the reason of incumbent advantage. (see Przeworski 1999)


Using Majoritarian Democracy to Prevent Violent Ethnic Conflict?



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