The hallmark of the plural or multi-ethnic society, and the feature that distinguishes it from its pluralistic counterpart of ethnic diversity, is the practice of politics almost exclusively along ethnic lines. The elites of different groups that often worked together to secure independence, a condition stipulated by the colonial powers as a necessary condition for granting independence, derive their power from ethnically-based political, social, and economic associations in their communities.
With the departure of the colonial power, the elites strive to hold their multiethnic coalition together as long as possible. However, strains among the groups begin to surface in the competition for the scarce political and economic spoils of independence. Groups begin to turn against each other to secure their “fair” share of national resources. Ethnic politicians and their followers who are discarded from, or who were never included in, the governing multiethnic coalition, face incentives to “ethnicize” politics, to “fan the flames” of ethnic chauvinism in order to gain electoral office. We call this the politics of demand generation and the increasing salience of ethnicity.
The multiethnic coalition becomes strained by the increasing frequency of ethnic appeals. A process of “ethnic outbidding” racks the coalition. Each member of the coalition, fearing a loss of power to one of its partners or rivals, strives to establish itself as the dominant power. This process gives rise to electoral machinations and violence. Those in power manipulate voting rules to favor their own group. They give increased representation to rural or urban communities depending on where their supporters reside. They gerrymander voting districts. As the need to entrench themselves in power increases, they resort to more severe measures, including jailing opposition politicians, military intervention, forced emigration, violence, and intimidation. Democratic practices are severely restricted or eliminated. Democracy often gives way to military rule or one-party states based on force.