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This paper revisits the arguments in Rabushka and Shepsle’s influential 1972 book, The Politics of Plural Societies, concerning the role of ethnic ‘entrepreneurs’ or ‘outbidders’ in deeply divided societies. Many scholars borrow the Rabushka-Shepsle framing, but seek to explain why this does not apply in places like India, Cyprus or Northern Ireland, or how associated risks can be avoided through appropriate institutional design. In this paper, I adopt a reverse method of examining the three cases that corresponded most closely to the Rabushka-Shepsle model of outbidder pressures on centrist parties or multi-ethnic coalitions, at least in the 1960s and 1970s: Malaysia, Fiji and Northern Ireland. Viewed over the longer-run, all three polities witnessed forms of coalition politics, and responses to the politicization of ethnicity, that were dramatically at variance with those expected by the Rabushka-Shepsle model. This paper asks what lessons those cases offer for the theoretical literature on ethnicized party systems.
Jon Fraenkel is a Visiting Fellow with the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) Program and a Professor of Comparative Politics in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington. He was formerly a Senior Research Fellow based at the Australian National University (2007–12) and the University of the South Pacific in Fiji (1995–2007). He is Pacific correspondent for The Economist magazine. His research focuses on the politics of the Pacific Islands region, institutional design in divided societies, electoral systems, political economy and the economic history of Oceania.