Dilemmas of Political Representation of Ethnic Minorities

By Ana Margarita González*

 

One of the largest challenges that multicultural societies face is reflecting their ethnic-racial diversitywithin their spaces of political representation and participation. This challenge is part of the framework of a debate regarding demographic balance in arenas of deliberation as a basic condition for the construction of a pluralist and inclusive democracy. In sum, the inclusion of all groups of a country’s population in decision-making arenas has a significant relationship with the democratic character of states.

In some electoral systems, one of the fundamental criteria for identifying groups that benefit from special policies of inclusion is based on a pattern of systematic and historical exclusion from electoral politics. In the case of ethnic-racial minorities, their representation is also important in order to grant such groups a voice that ensures their presence in formal political processes.

In spite of the existence of numerous mechanisms, such as reserved seats in legislative bodies, political parties that have adopted explicit quotas, and minority political parties, minorities are still strongly underrepresented in legislative assemblies and arenas of power. In addition to numerical underrepresentation, there is also a de facto underrepresentation in terms of the quality of representation, as material presence of representatives that belong to minority groups is not in itself sufficient, but rather their effectiveness depends on their legislative activity and proposals, in terms of the reach of their voice in spaces of power.

Although various Latin American countries have adopted policies and laws to increase the participation of indigenous and Afro-descendants in legislative bodies, they number of representatives remains low. For example, in Colombia, although Afro-Colombians make up 10 percent of the population, Congress only reserves two seats for this population, or .6 percent of all congressmen. Similarly, in Bolivia, where indigenous people make up 62 percent of the population, indigenous congressmen make up only 5.1 percent of that legislative body. Peru and Ecuador, in spite of a large indigenous population and medium Afro-descendant population, do not have any special mechanism to ensure these groups’ representation in Congress.

The deficit of representation is not only due to the precariousness or absence of measures to ensure the physical presence of minority representatives, but also to the difficulties of identity-based representation. For example, where there do exist some minority representatives, the capacity to pass proposals that embody the interests of the represented group has been limited, as is the case in countries such as Colombia, where there is a low level of correlationbetween legislative proposals in the level of success and materialization of a identity-based political agenda.

Secondly, there is still a debate regarding the risks of essentializing racial minorities by not acknowledging the fluidity of racial-ethnic identities. As a consequence of this essentialization, we may fail to recognize ideological and political diversity within these groups, reducing the margin of action of their representatives and permitting the incentives of competition to create racial opportunism and cooptation.

Political participation of racial-ethnic minorities is fundamental to enrich public debate and pluralism in any democracy. Nonetheless, designing special mechanisms that are sufficiently broad to consolidate a critical mass that contributes to overcoming material and symbolic obstacles and reducing the risk of cooptation of these figures through public control is a necessary step to ensuring equal participation of minorities in formal political bodies.

 

* Ana Margarita González is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia)