Elections, Ethnic Parties, and Ethnic Identification in New Democracies: Evidence from the Baltic States


This paper explores the conditions under which democratic elections encourage citizens to identify with ethnicity. We argue that there are two mechanisms through which elections strengthen ethnic identification. First, the stronger ethnic parties are, the more intensive, ethnically exclusive political campaigns they carry out as an election approaches, resulting in strengthening citizens’ ethnic identity. Second, ethnic party mobilization drives members of other ethnic groups to develop stronger identity to their own ethnicity because such mobilization poses a serious political threat to the out-group members. Data analysis of approximately 18,000 respondents in five waves of the New Baltic Barometer supports the hypotheses. A case study of Latvia follows to illustrate that ethnic party mobilization for elections creates ethnic cleavages among the public.

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  1. 1.

    For more extensive literature reviews on ethnic identities and nationalism, see, for example, Olzak (1983), Fearon and Laitin (2000) and Chandra (2012: Chapter 1).

  2. 2.

    One may wonder that a strong ethnic party itself may be the result of strong, preexisting ethnic identities among citizens. Based on the established findings in extant work that political leaders manipulate identities of citizens, our theory focuses on the impact of ethnic party mobilization on people’s identities. Empirically, we deal with this endogeneity concern.

  3. 3.

    For instance, Rubin and Hewstone (1998: 45–47) extensively review the literature on empirical studies of Social Identity Theory.

  4. 4.

    The dataset will be available upon request to the authors.

  5. 5.

    Afrobarometer contains similar options in the question on primary group identity. For example, Bratton, Mattes, and Gyimah-Boadi (2005) and Eifert et al. (2010) use such a question to test causes and consequences of subjective cultural values. We follow their operationalization of ethnic identities by using the same question asking the “first and foremost” source of identity in the New Baltic Barometer.

  6. 6.

    Also, in this respect, we follow statistical methodology adopted by Eifert, Miguel, and Posner (2010), who rigorously test the effect of electoral proximity on ethnic identification with country-level fixed effects model.

  7. 7.

    We do not use questions which ask about voting behavior for the following two reasons. First, our primary interest is to explore determinants of ethnic identification, rather than voting behavior itself. As the extant literature uses questions asking about self-defined, subjective identities (Bratton, Mattes, and Gyimah-Boadi 2005; Eifert, Miguel, and Posner 2010), we also follow this tradition. Second, we think that using questions on voting behavior such as “if an election was held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?” may induce serious measurement errors and bias depending on the proximity of the elections. In a survey which is very distant from the closest election (for instance, the November 2004 election in Latvia), respondents may answer such a question with little consideration, whereas in a survey that was taken soon after an election (for example, the November 1996 election in Lithuania) they may take the question more seriously. Such possible differences in seriousness among respondents make it difficult to accurately measure ethnic identity. Yet, we do recognize citizens’ voting behavior is deeply related to their identities. Our case study illustrates that citizens’ voting for ethnic parties is at least partly driven by ethnic mobilization and subsequently activated ethnic identities among citizens.

  8. 8.

    The following answer options are available to respondents: (1) City/Locality, (2) Region, (3) Baltic Nationality, (4) Polish, (5) Russian, (6) Belorussian, (7) Ukrainian, (8) European, (9) Soviet, (10) Other.

  9. 9.

    The following answer options are available to respondents: (1) City/Locality, (2) Region, (3) Country, (4) Europe, (5) Other, (6) Polish, (7) Russian, (8) Belorussian, (9) Ukrainian, (10) Soviet.

  10. 10.

    The responses are coded as follows: Region category = “City/Locality” and “Region”; Ethnic majority category = “Baltic Nationality” or “Country”; Minority category = “Polish,” “Russian,” “Belarusian,” “Ukrainian”; International category = “Europe” and “Soviet”; Other category = others.

  11. 11.

    For descriptive statistics, see Appendix Table 2. Appendix Table 3 also shows national-level aggregate average of national and ethnic minority identities. Although one may think that ethnic majority identity is different from attachment to a nation state, both overlap considerably in the contexts of the Baltic states, where titular ethnic groups dominate major political posts in the government and ethnic majority parties pursue ethnically exclusive, nationalistic policies.

  12. 12.

    More specifically, we rely on Bugajski (2002), Comparative Manifesto Project, and the Chapel Hill Expert Survey. The list of ethnic parties and their proportion relative to total parliamentary seats are available in Appendix Table 4.

  13. 13.

    For electoral proximity in each survey, see Appendix Table 3.

  14. 14.

    We have created three dummy variables by recoding “social status:” employed = 1, pensioner = 2, student = 3, unemployed = 4, housewife = 5, others = 6, and “do not know” = 8. Combining the other categories, we set as the reference category.

  15. 15.

    The education variable is coded as follows: 1 = primary education, 2 = secondary education, 3 = university.

  16. 16.

    See Appendix A for descriptive statistics.

  17. 17.

    To distinguish members of titular ethnic groups from others, we use a question asking in what language the respondents answer in survey interviews. What language people speak is a clear indicator of the nominal ethnic membership of a respondent, as we define in theory section based on Chandra (2012). However, such a distinction may induce selection bias because selecting a language in the survey may indicate that the respondent has already identified with the ethnic group of that language. We consider this possibility in robustness checks.

  18. 18.

    More specifically, we exclude (1) the Popular Front in Estonia and Lithuania and (2) People’s Party (TP) in Latvia from our list of nationalist parties.

  19. 19.

    We include (1) the National Movement for Latvia (TKL) and (2) People Harmony Party (TSP) in Latvia as nationalist and ethnic minority parties, respectively.

  20. 20.

    Here, only Hypothesis 2-a is not supported. This also suggests that the effect of ethnic minority parties’ mobilization is weaker than ethnic majorities’.

  21. 21.

    We also re-estimate all the models by trying other combinations of countries (Latvia and Lithuania and Lithuania and Estonia) only to find that the overall results do not change.

  22. 22.

    We also examine whether ethnic party mobilization becomes intense under higher electoral competition by introducing three-way interaction models between electoral proximity, competitiveness, and seat shares of ethnic parties. Yet, we cannot find evidence suggesting such effects.

  23. 23.

    See Appendix Table 4 for the seat shares of ethnic parties in Latvia.

  24. 24.

    Even though general elections were also held in 2011, they were announced in July 2011, after the victory day event.


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We would like to thank Mike Bratton, Jeff Conroy-Krutz, Brian Kennedy, Ani Sarkissian, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on the paper. We would also like to thank Richard Rose for kindly sharing raw data of the New Baltic Barometer with us. This research was funded by a Fulbright Fellowship, Tokyo Foundation, and JSPS Grants-in-Aids (#10546328).

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Correspondence to Masaaki Higashijima.



Table 2 Descriptive statistics
Table 3 Survey year/month and electoral proximity
Table 4 Ethnic parties’ share of seats in the Baltic states

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Higashijima, M., Nakai, R. Elections, Ethnic Parties, and Ethnic Identification in New Democracies: Evidence from the Baltic States. St Comp Int Dev 51, 124–146 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12116-015-9187-1

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  • Elections
  • Ethnic identity
  • Ethnic parties
  • The Baltic states
  • Election campaigns