Extremist Outbidding in Ethnic Party Systems is Not Inevitable: Tribune Parties in Northern Ireland

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Abstract

The ethnic outbidding thesis predicts centrifugal polarisation in ethnically divided party systems. We argue instead that the incentives of power-sharing institutions can encourage the development of electoral strategies based on ‘ethnic tribune appeals’ in which parties combine robust ethnic identity representation with increased pragmatism over resource allocation. We test these arguments in Northern Ireland and show that though evidence of direct vote switching from moderate parties to ostensibly ‘extreme’ parties is prima facie consistent with the outbidding thesis, attitudinal convergence between the nationalist and unionist communities on the main political issues is not. The recent electoral success of the DUP and Sinn Féin can instead be explained by these parties' ‘ethnic tribune’ appeals. Many voters simultaneously endorse peace, prosperity and (increasingly) power sharing but also want the strongest voice to protect their ethnonational interests. Identity voting for ethnic tribune parties implies a degree of resolve in advocating ethnic group interests, but does not entail the increased polarisation implied by outbidding models. Like their voters, ethnic tribune parties can be simultaneously pragmatic (with regard to resources) and intransigent (with regard to identity), so that despite appearances to the contrary, the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland incentivise centripetal dynamics that inhibit outbidding.

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