Ethnic Minorities and Political Participation

Non-institutionalized Participation of Ethnic Minorities


2011 was an important year for Turkish domestic politics in terms of government and Kurdish minority relations. In the beginning of the year, influenced by the Arab Spring, the Kurdish people started their “civilian disobedience” movement in order to demand more cultural rights. The minority-focused Peace and Democracy Party led the movement (Fraser, 2011). . The high election threshold level in Turkey is the reason for not defending Kurdish rights in the parliament. According to Council of Europe, “the national 10 per cent threshold was the highest of all the thresholds applied in the member states of the Council of Europe.”[1] In general elections of June 2011, 35 party members were elected as independent deputies because the threshold was not applicable to independent candidates. However, some days after the election, the Supreme Election Board decided to block one of the Kurdish politicians’ right of being a member of the Parliament because of his ”past terrorism-related convictions” (Zıbak, 2011). The prevention of minority participation in Turkish politics increased the tension in the country. The Turkish police’s repressive actions against the protesters made the demonstrations more aggressive and, as a result, the Kurdish deputies decided to boycott the new parliament’s “oath-taking” ceremony (Watson & Tüysüz, 2011).

However, this kind of an aggressive public demonstration tradition cannot be generalized to all ethnic minorities in Europe. This paper questions the relation between ethnic minorities and demonstrations. Why do ethnic minorities demonstrate? Why does being an ethnic minority increase non-institutionalized participation? Does this relation hold for all European countries? The main claim is that, if the country is either centralized or repressive (or both), being an ethnic minority with better social skills increases the likelihood of non-institutionalized participation. On the other hand, if the country is neither centralized nor repressive, minorities seem less likely to demonstrate.

The first part of the paper focuses on the properties of the state and the effect of the state’s political design on minority participation. The second part discusses the link between being a minority and protest movements. In the third part, research design is explained. In the last sections, the results of the statistical models are presented and discussed. The models provide some evidence that being a minority with social skills is increasing non-institutionalized participation separately and this effect is most pronounced in the states with exclusive dominant strategies.

Representation of Ethnic Minorities

Defining the Concepts

Above all things, the definition of being an ethnic minority must be clarified. Ethnicity is usually used together with culture and one must go beyond the political science field, borrowing from sociology and psychology, to understand it better. According to Umaña-Taylor (2011), ethnic identity is one of the several social identities that a person owns and it is related to cultural heritage, including attitudes and values. Ethnicity and race should be differentiated; “race is a socially defined categorization system based loosely on physical characteristics, such as skin color, that serves to maintain a sociopolitical hierarchy”, whereas ethnicity is made of traditional values, which are transmitted from the ancestors (Umaña-Taylor and Shin, 2007, pg. 178).

Ethnic minority issue begam pronounced after World War II with the waves of immigration to the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria. In France, Switzerland and Belgium, this issue has a longer history because local people were transferred to the homeland during the colonization period (Penninx, et al., 2004). In the countries that are analysed in this paper, high numbers of minorities can be observed. According to the Federal Ministry of the Interior’s 2006 census numbers, 18% of the German population has an immigrant background and nearly half of them have German citizenship. The major ethnic minorities are Turkish and ex-Yugoslavian communities.[2] Statistics Netherlands states that, as of 2011, 79.42% of the Dutch population has Dutch background, followed by Turks (2.33%), Indonesians (2.28%), Moroccans (2.13%) and Surinamese (2.06%).[3] In Switzerland, the distribution of minorities is different from the other two countries as most come from Italy, Germany, Serbia and Portugal.[4] Lastly, in Turkey, the major ethnic minority is Kurdish and they hold citizenship. According to the CIA World Factbook, they consist of 18% of the whole population.[5]

These high numbers of minorities do not implicate that ethnic minorities are represented well or can effectively participate in politics. The political participation of ethnic minorities is characterized by “low rates of registration and voting, distrust towards middle and higher levels of representation and difficult coordination, if any, between local and national levels of representation.” (Marques and Santos, 2004, pg. 114) Inspired by this problem, UNESCO initiated the ‘Multicultural Policies and Modes of Citizenship in European Cities’ project. In its project description, it is stated that minorities are “formally” excluded from the decision making system as well as the social life.[6]

Being excluded from the political system leads minorities to mobilize and protest. Leighley (2001) gives the example of Latinos in Texas and California. Because citizenship is required to vote, the Latino community is excluded from participation in institutionalized politics; however, “it may not necessarily depress participation in other activities that do not require citizenship” (Leighley, 2001, pg. 36) Public demonstration is one of the modes of participation, which does not require citizenship. There are some other differences between institutionalized and non-institutionalized participation. According to Verba, et al. (1993), unlike voting, citizens have more than one chance to influence the politics. Teorell, Torcal and Montero (2007) name demonstrations as “attempts to influence society”, which is an indirect way to influence the politicians. However, public demonstrations are still among the “least frequent acts in all countries”. (Teorell, Torcal and Montero, 2007, pg. 340). In Europe, the levels of participation in public demonstrations differ from country to country. According to Teorell, Torcal and Montero (2007, pg. 339), on average, 7% of European citizens took part in a public demonstration, which is equal to the population of Switzerland. In Germany (which is calculated as West Germany), the participation level is 9% and is higher than the European mean. On the other hand, the Netherlands has one of the lowest public demonstration participation levels in Europe, 5%. Although these numbers include all residents and not only minorities, they indicate a general public demonstration culture. There might be several reasons for the differences among the countries. One reason may be the design of political institutions and the other one may be the dominant strategy of the state.

State Design and Strategies

Kriesi (1995) states that decentralization increases the degree of formal access. This implies that ethnic minorities can influence domestic policies by institutionalized modes of participation, like voting in local elections. Goodnow and Moser (2012, pg. 170) focus on the Russian federal system and its single-member-district elections and list its advantages as “greater substantive representation, higher voter turnout, greater knowledge and interest in politics, and a stronger sense of the political system’s legitimacy”. The increasing population of minorities enhances these advantages. On the other hand, in centralized countries, minorities have less formal access to participate, so they are most likely to protest. So, to sum up:

Hypothesis 1: In centralized countries, being an ethnic minority increases the likelihood of participating politics in non-institutionalized ways because of the unavailability of formal access points.

Like the institutional structure, informal procedures of the state may also be deterministic in minority mobilization. Research on this area is found in “political opportunity structure” literature. Kreisi (1995) calls these informal procedures “the dominant” strategy of the state. States with exclusive dominant strategy use repression as a tool to solve internal conflicts. These repressive tools may have different definitions. Vermeersch (2006) states that the absence of official recognition of minorities might show the repressive legacy of the country. Kreisi (1995) names the delegitimization of political parties as repression. He gives the example of the Communist Party in Italy and France. In Turkey, there’s a long-lasting tradition of banning Kurdish minority political parties for a number of reasons.

It is argued that an exclusive strategy mobilizes ethnic minorities and leads them to raise their voice in public demonstrations, as demonstrated in the introduction where repressive action caused a reaction. This thought is based on the “reactive ethnicity” theory. According to Vermeersch (2006, pg. 35), ethnic minorities are more likely to protest, “when they experience discrimination and problems which arise from poverty and social deprivation.” To explain the Romani movement, which gained more strength in the beginning of 1990s, Vermeersch (2005, pg. 22) lists some research results, showing that 54% of police officers believe that the “criminal way of life is a key element in Romani identity” and the prejudice can also be observed in the media. Kreisi (1995) also states that repression might have a reinforcement effect on cultural movements and may attract support for these movements. Thus, the second hypothesis can be summarized as follows.

Hypothesis 2: In countries with a repressive legacy, being an ethnic minority increases the likelihood of participating in politics in non-institutionalized ways

Ethnic Minorities and their Reasons for Demonstration

The link between being an ethnic minority and public demonstrations is yet to be explained. If public demonstration is analysed by Civic Voluntarism Model, which is presented by Verba, Schlozman and Brady (1995), it requires three resources; time, money and civic skills. Public demonstrations require more time than voting. They require more money to organize, especially while preparing banners or advertisements. Lastly, participants need to have some “organizational and communications capacities”, which are called “civic skills” (Verba, Schlozman and Brady, 1995, pg. 271)

This is where minorities come in to the scene. The link between ethnic minorities and protest/demonstration activities may be the “social skills” or “social connectedness”. Many times, ethnic minorities are homogeneous groups that are connected by their national identities. Benford and Snow (2000) use the term “collective action frames” which are the “outcome of negotiating shared meaning”. So, minorities usually make decisions for the wellbeing of the group after discussions and negotiations. However, why do other groups (in this case, ethnic majorities) not demonstrate? This is due to the collective action problems. According to Oliver and Marwell (1988), larger groups have more resources but the cost of organizing and coordinating group members increases at the same time and this cost might exceed benefits. So, voting would be the best option for large groups that they can influence political decisions because of their plurality, and it requires lower costs than protesting. These civic resources or culture can be measured by the concept of “civic communities” (Fennema and Tillie, 2001). In these civic communities, the members gather frequently. Organizational costs decrease, decisions are made faster and one can observe higher levels of mobilization. So third hypothesis of the paper is as follows:

Hypothesis 3: Higher civic/social skills increase the probability of participation in non-institutionalized ways

Research Design

To test these hypotheses, the data from European Social Survey Round 4 (2008) is used. In the fourth round of the survey, 31 countries are covered. For Hypothesis 3, a pooled cross-sectional analysis is made. For the first and second hypotheses, four countries are categorized in accordance to their institutional design (centralized and decentralized) and dominant strategies (exclusive and inclusive). The countries that are used for this part of the paper are Germany, Turkey, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Germany with its 16 “länder” and Switzerland with 26 “cantons” are categorized as decentralized countries, whereas the other two countries are centralized. Categorization in accordance to the states’ dominant strategies are based on Kreisi (1995) where France is replaced by Turkey. The categorization that is used in this paper can be found in Table 1. Data of the countries are weighted to make the results comparable.


The dependent variables are two different modes of participation. The main dependent variable is non-institutionalized participation, of which the main mode is public demonstrations. However, some other different non-institutionalized participation modes must be kept in mind. As discussed above, public demonstrations require resources, so minorities might prefer other modes of non-institutionalized participation. Wearing a badge and signing a petition are other non-institutionalized ways of participation. According to Marien (2008), these three modes have the same underlying factor, and so they are called “unconventional participation”. In this paper, a binary participation variable is created and coded as 1 when the citizen participated in at least one of these activities. Illegal public demonstrations are not included in the analysis because they were not included in the data set. Another approach could have been a 0-3 scale of non-institutionalized participation but this is not used because the focus of the paper is on attendance, instead of level of engagement in unconventional participation.

The other dependent variable is the institutionalized participation binary, which is constructed in the same way. This time, the variable is coded as 1 when the citizen voted in the last elections, contacted a politician or worked for a party. These are called as “conventional participation” because they are “rather formal, politicized forms of participation” (Marien, 2008, pg. 8). It should be noted that there are alternative categorization methods. Teorell, Torcal and Montero (2007) divide general participation into three as “voting”, “involvement in political parties” and “attempts to influence the society”. The other modes on non-institutionalized participation are clustered together in the latter category.

Table 2 shows that, in 31 European countries, 80.1% of the citizens participated in politics in institutionalized ways. As expected, the level of non-institutionalized participation is lower. Public demonstration is the lowest of all three unconventional participation modes despite it is not shown in the table. This trend holds for every country of focus. The level of non-institutionalized participation is lower in Turkey than the mean, which might be related to cultural reasons, while Switzerland has the highest level.

The main independent variable is the ethnic minority dummy. It is coded as 1 when the answer to the question “Do you belong to a ethnic minority in [country]?” is answered as “yes”. 6.4% of the citizens in Europe belong to an ethnic minority according to the survey. Switzerland seems to have the highest and Germany seems to have the lowest percentage of minorities. In Turkey, every minority has a citizenship. Germany and Switzerland seem to have the lowest levels, respectively 54.7% and 41.8%.

The second main independent variable is social skill, which is a measure between 1 and 7, measuring the frequency with which these people meet friends, relatives and colleagues. The other possible explanatory variables are based on Leighley and Vedlitz (1999). Political interest is considered a psychological resource, education is a socioeconomic resource, and the left-right scale is used as group identity. The discrimination dummy in the model only includes race, nationality, language and ethnicity variables to exclude gender related discrimination. These control variables are interacted with ethnic minority dummy because being a minority might have an effect on these variables. Gender and age are the other control variables. A logistic regression model is used to test the hypotheses because of the binary dependent variables.


Before undertaking a country-based analysis, a pooled cross-sectional regression (including all countries in the ESS survey) is conducted to observe the general trends. The results can be seen in Figure 1. Because of the large sample size, most of the variables are statistically significant. The main independent variable “being an ethnic minority” seems to decrease political participation in both modes. However, once interaction variables are included, the probability of non-institutionalized participation increases, as expected, but the significance is gone.

The other main independent variable, social skills, is significant in all models and the sign is positive as expected. Higher coefficient in the first model indicates that the effect of social skills is higher in non-institutionalized participation. However, the interaction variable of ethnic minority and social skills is negative, indicating that an increase in the social skills of a minority decreases the positive effect of being a minority on non-institutionalized participation. To make a better interpretation and check Hypothesis 3, the same logistic regression is made only to the ethnic minority sample. The results are stated in Figure 2.

The social skills variable is positive as expected according to Figure 2, so the empirical evidence supports Hypothesis 3: high social connectedness increases participation in non-institutionalized ways. An interesting finding is that this effect is stronger in institutionalized way of participation. In addition to these findings, higher education, younger age and high political interest increase the likelihood of non-institutionalized participation in minorities. Interestingly, when the ethnic minority feels discriminated, they don’t participate in politics in either mode.

Figure 3 presents the results for country-based logistic regressions to test the first two hypotheses. In repressive countries such as Germany and Turkey, being an ethnic minority significantly increases the likelihood of participating in politics in non-institutionalized ways. This result confirms the second hypothesis, which claims that more repression would end up with more counter-protests. On the other hand, the second hypothesis is rejected because, despite the centralized design, being an ethnic minority does not lead to unconventional protests in the Netherlands. The results in decentralized countries are more interesting. The expectation was that formal access to politics via participation in local governments would decrease protests. The results demonstrate the opposite: being minorities in federal states increases the likelihood of participation in non-institutionalized ways.

Hypothesis 3 also seems to be true according to Figure 3 and the signs are positive as expected. It is interesting that the link between social connectedness and non-institutionalized participation is only significant in federal states. However, in three countries, higher social connectedness within minorities decreases the positive affect on likelihood of non-institutionalized participation. Figure 4 is a marginal effect graph. Yet, the change in social skill levels doesn’t eliminate the positive effect of being an ethnic minority on non-institutionalized ways of participation.


Institutional Design and Strategies

Ethnic minorities in two federalist countries seem to participate in non-institutionalized ways. This is contrary to the “formal access” hypothesis. This might be explained with an alternative hypothesis, claimed by Saideman, et al. (2002), who argue that “under federalism, activists may find it easier to rally support, because it may appear more feasible to influence a regional government than decision makers at the national level” (Saideman et al, 2002, pg. 118). However, they also found that the level of aggression would be lower in these kinds of systems than centralized ones.

The difference between Germany and Switzerland might be due to their different federalist systems. According to Safran (1994), Switzerland is divided into cantons according to ethnic criteria. Each canton has different official languages. This might enable ethnic minorities to represent themselves better in institutionalized ways than the Germany minorities. Goodnow and Moser (2012) also focus on the importance of “majority-minority districts” and find out that minority representation via voting is better in districts where ethnic minorities form a majority.

On the other side of the coin, we see that, in centralized Turkey, ethnic minorities participate in non-institutionalized ways, unlike the other centralized country, the Netherlands. However, generalizing centralized countries is also a mistake. Although it is generally thought that centralized systems do not provide opportunities to voice opinions, foreign residents can vote at the local level in the Netherlands. In fact, four minority groups are represented in the four big city councils and left parties “actively [search] for migrant candidates” (Fennema and Tillie, 2001, pg. 27)

Repressive Turkey and Germany experience more non-institutionalized participation of minorities, as expected. However, this is also present in Switzerland where the dominant strategy is inclusive and this undermines the finding. Weldon (2006) categorizes Switzerland as a “collectivist-ethnic” country, which may also affect the way minorities participate. On the other hand, the inclusive nature of Switzerland might be the reason for the lower significance level in Switzerland than Germany and Turkey.

The Threat of Political Alienation

An interesting finding of the paper is the effect of discrimination on participation. Discrimination means being excluded in political and social life. According to Klink and Wagner (1999), 9 out of 14 studies provided evidence of discrimination against ethnic minorities in Germany in situations like housing, helping in everyday situations and serving in restaurants. On the other hand, repression can be present even if minorities are not discriminated via rule of law. In Turkey, minorities have the right to be represented, study their language and culture in some universities, and the state provides a TV Channel in minority languages. However, they are still repressed when they demand more freedom. In Germany, a study by Albrech (1997) shows that ethnic minorities are treated worse than German citizens in criminal cases and in prison regimes.

In both countries, increased discrimination decreases an ethnic minority’s probability of participation in non-institutionalized ways. On the other hand, feeling discriminated is not related with an institutionalized way of participation as seen in Figure 1. As a consequence, discriminated ethnic minorities may end up alienated politically. This is undesirable for society because “at worst, it may lead to more aggressive political activities such as protests, riots or even terrorism” (Pantoja and Segura, 2003, pg. 441) To explain this better, a simulation is made to measure predicted probabilities of minorities in Turkey. Holding all other variables at their means, a non-discriminated minority has 5.5% probability of participating in non-institutionalized ways. This probability decreases to 0.6% if he/she is discriminated. In the end, discrimination of ethnic minorities can lead to political alienation, which is a significant problem in politics.


To check the robustness of the results, some other models are conducted and the tables can be found in the Appendix. In the first robustness check, a different social skill variable is used. Instead of “meeting frequency”, this time the “frequency of taking part in social activities” is measured. This model did not change the findings significantly. The new variable became significant in all countries. In Switzerland, the ethnic minority dummy lost its significance but the direction did not changed. Interaction term directions also stayed the same while the significance of positive interaction variables is gone.

Some different countries are also tested to check if the results can be generalized. In Sweden, the results should have been similar to the Netherlands because minorities are encouraged to vote although it is a centralized country. For example, according to Fennema and Tillie (1999), Sweden is one of the countries trying to increase migrant participation. The regression analysis shows that, like the Netherlands, being a minority is insignificant in non-institutionalized ways of participation attendance and the sign is negative. The social skills variable is positive and slightly significant, and the interaction term is also positive like the Netherlands.

Kreisi (1995) originally lists France, instead of Turkey. When we insert France’s data into the model, we see that the ethnic minority dummy is still positive, although it is not significant. This may be due to a possible lower level of repression in France, but the direction is still as expected.

A robustness test is also made for federalist countries. When Russia is tested in the model, the coefficient is negative and insignificant unlike Germany and Switzerland. The Russian system “designates certain regions as ’ethnic homelands’ that are named after particular minority ethnic groups” (Goodnow and Moser, 2012, pg. 169). Thus, as discussed before, ethnic federal states might decrease the likelihood of participating in non-institutional ways (as the Switzerland case) and may even eliminate it (as in the Russian case), because in these kinds of states, ethnic minorities might become a regional majority in the federal state that can influence politics in institutionalized ways.

In Spain, which is classified as a “quasi-federalism” or “pseudo-federalism” by Safran (1994), and Basque and Catalan people have their own autonomous communities, the results are similar to Russia with insignificant and negative “being a minority dummy”. A robustness check is not made for Germany because Austria, which has a similar federal design to Germany is not present in ESS Round 4.


In this paper, the ways by which ethnic minorities participate, the reasons for their participation, the mode of their choice, and the reasons for different behaviours in different countries are explained. Several logistic regression models show that higher social communication made minorities participate more in politics. However, the political structure of their countries differentiated their behaviours. In Turkey, where both the explanatory variables exist (centralized with an exclusive dominant strategy), ethnic minorities participate more in non-institutionalized ways because it is not possible to influence local politics via voting. Germany’s decentralized institutional design may be the reason for a lower coefficient than Turkey, but due to the repressive dominant strategy, the coefficient of the ethnic minority dummy is significant and higher than the other two countries. Switzerland’s ethnic federalism and inclusive nature ends up with lowest positive coefficient but it is still significant. Lastly, for the Netherlands, with an inclusive dominant strategy and formal access points, the same dummy is not significant.

These results indicate that the host country’s structure is very important to explain minority participation. An exclusive dominant strategy seems to because repression will reinforce the contra-movements. On the other hand, availability of formal access points alleviates the likelihood of non-institutionalized participation. However, this cannot be measured by categorizing countries as centralized or decentralized. Any details of the state structure may differentiate the minority behavior in politics. Lastly, there’s some evidence that discrimination of minorities in political and social life might lead to alienation. Thus, beside the political structure of the state, the social structure should also be examined. This relation between ethnic minorities and political alienation may be a subject for further research.



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Written by: Cansarp Kaya
Written at: University of Mannheim, Germany
Written for: Gema Garcia Albacete
Date written: 06/2012


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