Wed, Aug 15, 2007 - Page 3 News List

Forum focuses on ethnic identity and democratic reform

By Shih Hsiu-chuan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Academics exchanged views on ethnicity and nationalism in democratic development during the second day of a Taiwan Thinktank forum yesterday.

The Taipei forum was titled "After the Third Wave," referring to a theory that democratization has occurred in three major waves, the third of which began in the 1970s. The first wave of democratization followed World War I and the second came after World War II.

The term "third wave" of democracy was coined by Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington, who argued that the most recent wave began in Southern Europe and spread to Latin America before reaching the former communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe.

Mark Beissinger, professor of politics at Princeton University, examined the ways in which nationalism and ethnic lines played roles in both undermining and consolidating democratization in 15 former Soviet states.

Beissinger challenged the argument that strong ethnic identities are an enemy of democracy, saying that the role of ethnic nationalism in supporting democratization had been overlooked.

In the former Soviet states, Beissinger said, strong ethnic identities did not drive democratization alone, but ethnicity fueled democratization in combination with other factors.

The developments in this region have shown that strong ethnic identities can form the basis for a mobilizing action toward democracy when ethnic nationalism is directed against foreign occupation rather than against other indigenous ethnicities, Beissinger said.

"Ethnic nationalism is not necessarily incompatible with the democracy, but rather depends on the types of objects against which ethnic groups mobilize," he said.

Stephen Ndegwa, the World Bank's head public sector specialist, discussed the continuing challenges posed by identity politics in almost two decades of shaky democracy in Africa.

As an African, Ndegwa said that he took the problem of ethnic nationalism in Africa as a "given" that must be solved, as it has plagued the continent.

He said that Africa has produced a veritable "laboratory of democratic innovations," especially in dealing with ethnicity.

Ndegwa discussed three strategies to deal with ethnic politics in African countries, highlighting two recent debates in Africa on constitutional reform that focused on the division and restriction of political power.

"The debates relate to the questions echoed broadly within each transition of local determination of critical issues in the public arena, of balancing ethnic interests and of localizing power," he said.

Ndegwa said that some countries were debating their constitutions, an important indication of progress.

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