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Ethnic democracy is a political system that combines a structured ethnic dominance with democratic, political and civil rights for all. Both the dominant ethnic group and the minority ethnic groups have citizenship and are able to fully participate in the political process. Ethnic democracy differs from ethnocracy in being more truly democratic. It provides the non-core groups with more political participation, influence and improvement of status than ethnocracy supposedly does. Nor is an ethnic democracy a Herrenvolk democracy which is by definition a democracy officially limited to the core ethnic nation only.[1]

The term "ethnic democracy" was introduced by University of Haifa sociologist Sammy Smooha in a book published in 1989.[2]


Model definition

Smooha defines eight features that are the core elements of his model of an ethnic democracy[3]:

  1. Ethnic nationalism installs a single core ethnic nation in the state.
  2. The state separates membership in the single core ethnic nation from citizenship.
  3. The state is owned and ruled by the core ethnic nation.
  4. The state mobilises the core ethnic nation.
  5. Non-core groups are accorded incomplete individual and collective rights.
  6. The state allows non-core groups to conduct parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggle for change.
  7. The state perceives non-core groups as a threat.
  8. The state imposes some control on non-core groups.

Smooha also defines ten conditions that can lead to the establishment of an ethnic democracy[3]:

  1. The core ethnic nation constitutes a solid numerical majority.
  2. The non-core population constitutes a significant minority.
  3. The core ethnic nation has a commitment to democracy.
  4. The core ethnic nation is an indigenous group.
  5. The non-core groups are immigrant.
  6. The non-core group is divided into more than one ethnic group.
  7. The core ethnic nation has a sizeable, supportive Diaspora.
  8. The homelands of the non-core groups are involved.
  9. There is international involvement.
  10. Transition from a non-democratic ethnic state has taken place.

Applicability of the model

The model has been applied by researchers to several countries, with various levels of fit.



Sammy Smooha contends that Israel is a model or archetypical ethnic democracy.[1][4]

Latvia and Estonia

There is a spectrum of opinion among authors as to the classification of Latvia and Estonia, spanning from liberal or civic democracy [5][6] through ethnic democracy[7] to ethnocracy.[8] Priit Järve, Senior Analyst at the European Centre for Minority Issues, applied Smooha's model on Estonia and contends that Estonia can be identified as a mixture of ethnic democracy and a system of control.[3] Two of the eight features of Smooha's model were fully relevant while the remaining features were partially relevant. The first feature, that of ethnic nationalism installing a single core ethnic nation in the state is fully relevant, while the fourth feature of "the state mobilises the core ethnic nation" is not relevant in Järve's view.

The notion that Estonia or Latvia are ethnic democracies has been rejected by some commentators.[9] On the one hand, the citizenship laws of these countries are not based on ethnic criteria, treating citizens of Russian extract, including a number of people who automatically became citizens because their families have resided there since before 1940, with the same rights as the ethnic majorities[10][11]. Moreover, non-citizens enjoy social rights on a par with citizens[12]. On the other hand, given the proportion of minorities without certain political rights (7.5% in the case of Estonia[13]), Estonia and Latvia may not yet even qualify as ethnic democracies: in Smooha's definition of ethnic democracy, minority groups should enjoy full rights as citizens of the country[14]. However, given the steady growth of naturalisation and fairly relaxed inter-ethnic relations, Estonia and Latvia may indeed turn into civic democracies in the years to come.


Since the early 1970s Malaysia has become an ethnic democracy, although democratic institutions are weak. The system was reconstituted in the 1970s as an ethnic democracy. Since the shift in regime, the state has been identified with the Malay majority. It institutionalizes Malay dominance, Islam as a state religion and Malay as a state language. Immigration policy is designed to preserve a Malay majority. State preferential treatment of Malays in admission to the universities and state civil service and in certain economic ventures is instituted as a common policy. Restrictions are imposed on land acquisitions by non-Malays. [15]


Slovak nationalism is grounded in ethnicity and language. "State-building and nation-building in Slovakia are designed to install ethnic Slovaks as the sole nation and to prevent any sign of binationalism. This objective is made clear in the preamble of the Slovak constitution which begins with the following words: “We, the Slovak nation, bearing in mind the political and cultural heritage of our predecessors, the experience gained through centuries of struggle for our national existence and statehood…”[16]


  1. ^ a b Smooha , S. 'The model of ethnic democracy: Israel as a Jewish and democratic state', Nations and Nationalism, p. 475. Volume 8 Issue s4, 2002.
  2. ^ Smooha , S. The model of ethnic democracy, European Centre for Minority Issues, ECMI Working Paper # 13, 2001, p24.
  3. ^ a b c Priit Järve. Ethnic Democracy and Estonia, European Centre for Minority Issues, ECMI Working Paper # 13, 2000.
  4. ^ S Smooha, [ Ethnic democracy: Israel as an archetype ] Israel, 1997
  5. ^ John Pickles, Adrian Smith, Theorising transition: the political economy of post-Communist transformations, Taylor & Francis, 1998, p284
  6. ^ Jubulis M. Nationalism and Democratic Transition. The Politics of Citizenship and Language in Post-Soviet Latvia (Lanham, New York and Oxford: University Press of America, 2001), pp. 201–208
  7. ^ Discrimination against the Russophone Minority in Estonia and Latvia — synopsis of article published in the Journal of Common Market Studies (November 2005)
  8. ^ Yiftachel O. Ethnocracy: land and identity politics in Israel/Palestine. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006 ISBN 081223927X, 9780812239270 — p. 12
  9. ^ E.g., regarding Latvia: Smith-Sivertsen, Herman (2006). "Latvia — meir enn etnopolitikk [Latvia: More than Ethnopolitics]". in Bakke, Elisabeth (in Norwegian). Sentral-Europa og Baltikum etter 1989 [Central Europe and the Baltic States after 1989] (2nd ed.). Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget. p. 63. ISBN 8252167861. OCLC 162357834.  
  10. ^ Active Civic Participation of Immigrants in Estonia
  11. ^ Amnesty takes on Estonia (reprint)
  12. ^ Human Rights and Social Integration in the Republic of Latvia: a General Survey’, Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Latvia's Naturalisation Board, 1998 [1]
  13. ^ (pdf) Estonia Today: Citizenship. 2009-09-02. Retrieved 2009-09-22.  
  14. ^ Smooha S. and P. Järve, eds., The Fate of Ethnic Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (ECMI, 2005), pp. 61-114.[2]
  15. ^ Smooha , S. The model of ethnic democracy, European Centre for Minority Issues, ECMI Working Paper # 13, 2001, p81.
  16. ^ Smooha , S. The model of ethnic democracy, European Centre for Minority Issues, ECMI Working Paper # 13, 2001, pp 64-70.


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