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KISSAH AND DAWAT: Ethnic Representation: Making Democracy Work in Multiethnic Context

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ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 13 April) — In a society transitioning from armed conflict towards democracy, ethnic representation serves both as a case of identity politics and a quest for just representation. While the “majority rule” holds true in a democratic society, democracy also promotes “minority rights.” In a multiethnic context, majoritarian democracy is indeed problematic. 

While the majority population can easily expect representation by virtue of their sheer electoral number, the representation of minority ethnic groups can sometimes be elusive. This is why many governments across the world embraced the concepts of “reserved seats,” “proportional representation” and “affirmative actions” as legal devices and assurances that these minority ethnic groups can participate in the public decision-making spheres and have their voices heard and considered. The crafting of the electoral system is therefore crucial for the development of functional and inclusive democracy. In their introduction to “Electoral Systems and Democracy” (1994), Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner point out how the exclusion of minorities can be a serious threat to democracy. 

Diamond and Plattner (1994) also cited the important works of Donald Horowitz, professor of law and political science at Duke University, on the purposes of the electoral system. Those purposes that have implication to minority or ethnic representation are the ideas of proportionality, accountability of elected representatives, and inter-ethnic conciliation. Without these devices in place, the minority can be perpetually excluded from governance. Thus, the success of democratization will be harder to attain and largely limited without the participation of ethnic minorities in public leadership and discourses. This is even more problematic in cases of highly-selective representation or biased arguments of representation as determined by those in power, such as who should represent and which ethnic groups should be represented or be allowed to participate. 

We place our trust in democracy because, according to Adam Przeworski’s analysis in “Democracy and the Market” (1991), it is the best prospect for managing deep societal divisions, whether through the conscientious crafting of electoral design or the presence of legal devices that promote minority rights. Timothy Sisk, in his book “Power Sharing and International Mediation in Ethnic Conflicts” (1996), argues that practices and institutions resulting in broad-based coalitions, generally inclusive of ethnic groups in society, can reconcile the principles of self-determination and democracy in multiethnic contexts. Therefore, we call on the current government to continue building public institutions and processes that are inclusive and representative of society’s diversity. Ben Reilly and Andrew Reynolds (2000) consider institution and process building to be of greater importance in societies where people are deeply divided along ethnic lines.

Sisk (1996) proposes two ways forward: the consociational and integrative approach. The former relies on elite cooperation to form a multiethnic coalition after the election, while the latter involves party coalitions before the election.

The last active non-violent recourse of those unrepresented in the public sphere is the civil society. This is the case of 1Sama Coalition, a gathering of Sama professionals that started as an online group discussion about their political predicaments. But we should take note that even within Civil Society, it may be difficult for ethnic minorities to thrive. Without a promotive and protective framework for civil society, it will be difficult for ethnic minorities to address their grievances, especially those beyond their collective resources and capacities. 

A plural society like ours can only be truly pluralistic if there is participation and representation of ethnic and other diversities. There is a saying on the essence of democracy attributed to John Dewey, American philosopher, and education reformer, “the old saying that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy is not apt if it means … introducing more machinery of the same kind … But the phrase may also indicate the need of returning to the idea itself, of clarifying and deepening our apprehension of it, and of employing our sense of its meaning to criticize and remake its political manifestations.”

Moros as Muslims, we can take guidance from the Holy Qur’an reminding us the purpose of our diversity, “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Verse 13, Chapter 49: Al-Hujurat, Holy Qur’an). Or in an earlier verse (10) in this same chapter, reminding who we are and how we shall treat each other, “The believers are but brothers, so make settlement between your brothers. And fear Allah that you may receive mercy.” 

In this blessed month of Ramadan, and particularly in the period of Laylat ul-Qadr, we have a unique opportunity to reflect and make amends in order to address disparities and promote fairness in the Bangsamoro region. This includes ensuring equitable participation and representation for all ethnicities in the region. May the light of Laylat ul-Qadr shine upon our leaders and those in whose hands our collective unity rests upon, May the Almighty guide them towards creating a legacy of inclusivity and justice, Ameen.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry—born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-Tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue.)

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