Get access

Divergence in Diversity? The Dissimilar Effects of Cleavages on Electoral Politics in New Democracies


  • Jóhanna Kristín Birnir is assistant professor of government, Post-doctoral Fellow, START and CIDCM, University of Maryland, 0145 Tydings Hall, College Park, MD 20742 (

  • I would like to thank John Londregan and Björn Birnir for help with the model. Allyson Benton, Barbara Geddes, Stathis Kalyvas, Raul Madrid, Stephen Saideman, Michael Thies, David Waguespack, Frank Zagare, and members of the faculty workshop at Buffalo provided helpful comments at various stages of writing. A part of the paper was presented at the Annual Conference of the American Political Science Association. I thank Nil Satana and Rafael Davtian for excellent research assistance and the Baldy center at the University of Buffalo for funding the data collection with special thanks to the director, Lynn Mather. Jonathan Wilkenfeld, CIDCM, and the START centers at the University of Maryland I thank for institutional support and the National Academics and Department of Homeland Security Research Associate program for funding the completion of the paper. Three anonymous reviewers provided exceptionally cogent and constructive comments. As usual all errors and omissions are my own.


Recent theory on ethnic identity suggests that it is constructed and highly influenced by contextual factors and group leaders' strategies. Therefore, while the notion that social cleavages stabilize electoral politics is well established, which cleavages matter and why remain open questions. This article argues that in new democracies the effects of diffuse ethnic cleavages on electoral politics diverge depending on the amount of information they provide to their constituency. The information provision, in turn, depends on how well the cleavage lends itself to the formation of ethnic parties. A formal model of voting stability is developed and empirically tested using data on electoral volatility in all new democracies since 1945 and on individual voting in democratizing Bulgaria. The results show that in the sample examined only identity that centers on language jump-starts party-system stabilization, while race and religion do nothing to stabilize the vote in early elections.