The purpose of parliaments is to be representative of all sections of society. This enables them to function as a link between citizens and the executive branch and ensures that the needs and concerns of all groups are reflected in a country’s laws, policies and budget. Moreover, the presence of deputies from different political, economic and social backgrounds along with procedures encouraging citizen participation in the legislative process are likely to render a parliament legitimate in the eyes of society. This guarantees more stability, better conditions for development and therefore, greater resilience to social and economic perturbations.
In this context, it is important that parliaments overcome some of the barriers to participation in politics and public life, that are faced by marginalized groups such as minorities and indigenous peoples. This area of expertise gives examples of how parliaments can strengthen the legislative representation of both groups.
How can a national parliament ensure the participation of minorities and indigenous people in the legislative process?
Strengthening the parliamentary representation of indigenous peoples and minorities can be achieved by national parliaments in several ways – via party law; electoral law; parliamentary procedures. The following sections describe these different methods and showcase examples of good practices.
In a lot of countries, the formation of parties based on language, ethnicity or religion is highly restricted or even banned. This is usually done in heterogeneous states under the pretext that the creation of such political parties might hinder political stability and provoke secession. Nevertheless, the formation of parties representing indigenous and minority groups is of significance for the parliamentary representation of the latter.
Notwithstanding their election to parliament, parties representing indigenous people and minorities have expertise on legislative issues of concern to their constituents and thus, can be easily consulted by parliaments even when out of office. Therefore, governments should refrain to completely outlaw the existence of such parties through party law.
Any electoral system can be designed to provide opportunities for minority groups to elect their representatives in parliament. This ensures the representation of all voices within society when a parliament votes on laws or conducts oversight of the executive, making a political system truly democratic. The ensuing paragraphs highlight several procedures that facilitate the legislative representation of indigenous peoples and minority groups.
Reserved seats. The procedure enables indigenous people and minorities to obtain seats in a legislature, notwithstanding the result of parliamentary elections. This happens through the assignment of a predetermined number of seats which is decided upon on the basis of the amount of people that a minority/indigenous group has within a country. An example of such practice is Croatia where minority groups amounting to more than 1,5% of the population are guaranteed between 1 and 3 seats in the legislature.
Exemption from electoral thresholds. Exempting indigenous people from electoral thresholds allows an indigenous/minority group to enter parliament without needing to attain a certain percentage of votes, which is usually between 3 and 5%. A case in point of such practice can be observed in Serbia where minority parties are exempted from the electoral threshold of 5%.
Quotas. Similar in application to gender quotas, minority quotas can be enacted by reforming a country’s electoral law. In theory, provisions in an electoral law can require political parties participating in a parliamentary election to include a given proportion of candidates originating from minority/indigenous groups. However, in practice this measure up to this date remains underused.
Parliaments can ameliorate the representation of minority/indigenous groups by including such groups in the legislative decision-making process and by regulating their own internal organization. The following paragraphs showcase existing examples of both approaches.
Veto on certain laws. In certain states, minority and indigenous groups have the right to veto certain bills which are of direct importance for them. In Slovenia, the representatives of the two national communities can veto laws that infringe the exercise of their constitutional rights as well as issues of direct concern to their customs.
Formation of parliamentary commissions on minority issues. Forming parliamentary commissions or sub-commissions focused solely on legislation related to minority issues or having a broader human rights mandate can also improve the representation of indigenous and minority groups. Indeed, deputies of such commissions, even when they are not themselves members of these groups, are much more inclined to develop expertise on topics related to minorities/indigenous people, rendering the latter better represented.
Obligation to consult. Parliaments can be obliged to consult minorities and indigenous people when a given legislation is of relevance to these groups. For example, in South Africa, the Parliament, when voting a law related to the customs or traditions of a community, must refer the draft legislation to the National House of Tradition Leaders. Other ways to consult minorities and indigenous groups could be in the forms of holding hearing, inviting written submissions, informal expert talks and visits to constituents by MPs.
Qualified majority voting. Alternative voting procedures that give higher weight to the votes of representatives of indigenous and minority groups for legislation of direct concern to such groups can ensure also ensure good representation. However, in practice this is not often procedure is not often applied.
Soft approaches. Lighter measures such as allowing deputies of minority or indigenous groups to use their mother tongues when speaking in parliament; celebrating holidays like the International Day of the World’s Indigenous people; having specialized trainings for parliamentarians and their staff on minority issues are all approaches which could lead to a more successful representation of indigenous and minority interests by Parliaments.