- Dag Hammarskjold
Timothy D. Sisk
Of the range of tools available to conflict resolution practitioners to manage intractable conflicts, none of them is arguably more durable over the long term -- yet risky -- than the creation and nurturing of democracy. Democracy is promising because the principles, institutions, and rules associated with democratic practice seek to manage inevitable social conflicts in deeply divided and less conflicted societies alike. Democracy provides predictable procedures in which collective decisions can be taken without the risk that losing a political battle will mean grave misfortune, imprisonment, or even loss of life. Democracy as a system of political decision making is in many ways a system of conflict management in which the outcomes are unknown but the fundamental rules of the game provide a safe arena in which to compete.
For this reason, many deeply divided post-war societies in the 1990s have turned to democracy as a way to exit intractable conflict. From El Salvador (1994) to East Timor (2002), countries that were formerly trapped in violent conflict have become fledging -- if not quite "consolidated" -- democracies. This essay explores the linkages between democracy and conflict management as an exit to deadly strife in societies deeply divided by intractable conflicts. The essay highlights some inherent problems in turning to democratic governance after a protracted conflict and how different types of democracy may affect relations among conflicting groups. The implications of these basic connections between democracy and conflict management are explored for today's deeply divided societies moving beyond violence through a structured peace process. The essay also offers prescriptions for managing intractable conflicts in these situations. The essential findings in this area are two fold:
African National Congress Election Poster, 1994
By casting itself as a multiracial political party for the 1994 elections, the ANC helped allay the fears of minority South Africans that it would rule exclusively as a party of the long-oppressed black majority. This poster represents the party's promise that the advent of majority-rule democracy in South Africa would not mean a continuation of the years of bloody conflict that characterized the system of apartheid (racial separation) and the rebellion against it.
In South Africa's celebrated elections of April 1994, the turn to democracy and a plan to craft a new constitution allowed South Africa to escape a seemingly intractable conflict over race, equity, and discrimination that had escalated since the first apartheid-era white-minority government took power in 1948.
The ANC's moderate appeal for votes after so many years of conflict -- personified by Nobel Peace Laureate Nelson Mandela -- assured minorities that their rights would be protected in a post-apartheid South Africa through a new charter of basic human rights and a four-year process to promote truth-seeking and reconciliation.
Although the ANC won a clear majority of the votes, as had been expected, South Africa has seen a remarkable decline in political violence after the elections of 1994 and the fundamental ethos of interracial moderation continues today.
Exploring the Linkages
In many deeply divided societies today, parties turn to democracy in the course of negotiating peace agreements to exit intractable conflicts. The international community has routinely assisted such efforts, through mediation of the terms of peace agreements, expert and technical assistance in negotiation, to fielding monitors for transitional elections, to helping with the creation and training of new or established political parties. In many cases, former rebel groups (such as the ANC) have made the transition from war-wagers to political candidates. Internationally assisted efforts to democratize after bitter internal conflicts have, in recent years, featured prominently in Angola, Bosnia, Croatia, East Timor, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Namibia, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, to name a few. Hopes are pinned on the ballot box replacing the battlefield as the principal way in which social conflicts are waged. Today, countries such as Burundi, Sri Lanka, Russia (Chechnya), and Kosovo are seeking to design new systems of democracy to help manage long-standing conflicts.
Given the depth of enmity among contending groups after a long period of deadly violence, democracy in these cases is defined in these fairly minimalist terms:
These characteristics of post-war democracy are a function of newly created institutions, structures for representation -- particularly important are ethnic, religious, or racial factions and parties -- and patterns of political participation.
Democracy is a system of conflict management because it allows for the resolution of social conflicts through the rough-and-tumble competition in electoral and legislative arenas, replacing open confrontation on the battlefield for a seemingly unending process of bargaining and negotiation within the rules of the democratic game. As scholar Donald Rothchild perceptively argues in a seminal work on Kenya's independence negotiations, democratic institutions offer ongoing opportunities and incentives for the continuation of bargaining and negotiation among parties in conflict.
That is, some types of democratic institutions and practices may provide tangible reinforcement of moderation in politics, reinforcing the management of conflict among contending groups. Other scholars such as Ben Reilly and Andrew Reynolds have offered in-depth, penetrating analyses of how different election systems, for example, can provide complex systems of incentives to encourage moderation, ethnic, racial, and religious integration, and meaningful public participation in high-conflict, post-war societies.
Despite its promises for nudging parties to compromise, there are deeply entrenched reasons why democracy is inherently difficult in deeply divided societies, especially those seeking to escape intractable conflicts and violent encounters
The perils of introducing democracy after civil war are many and serious. Trust is weak, the issues are emotionally strong, the parties are faction-ridden and incoherent, and much is required of outside parties to guarantee a settlement. Can democracy work in deeply divided societies? The evidence is mixed. There are relative successes like South Africa to inspire our thinking about democratization after civil war. The country has managed to sustain procedural democracy while making slow, and seemingly steady, progress toward democratic consolidation. On the other hand, the problems experienced by Cambodia (which suffered setbacks to democracy after a period of failed power sharing), or Bosnia (which has struggled with overcoming ethnic tensions) temper optimism about democracy as an effective post-war conflict management system.
Scholars and practitioners alike agree that at least one element that determines the relative success of sustainable democracy in deeply divided societies is well-chosen institutions and public policy practices that promote ongoing inter-group bargaining and negotiation. Among the types of democracy that must be considered are majority-rule approaches, which feature winner-take-all competitions for political power, and forms of power sharing democracy. (For a discussion of the merits and demerits of these types and forms of democracy -- and the particular elements of them such as election systems, normative frameworks, and public policy for inter-group conciliation, see the knowledge block in this project on Sharing Power for Conflict Management.) Likewise, well-chosen public policies such as those that promote non-discrimination, equal access of all groups to state resources, and sensitive rules on language use can promote trust and reduce fears that democratic competition for power will produce intolerant majority governments.
Prescriptions for Intractable Conflicts
If the perils to democratization after conflict could not be overcome, there would not have been the rather extensive number of relatively successful negotiated settlements in recent years. What lessons offer promise of improving the ability to create democratic institutions to manage deep-seated, post-war social differences?
For many years, it was widely presumed that democracy is ill-suited to post-war divided societies, that the problems inherent in competitive, free-wheeling politics in the pursuit of maximizing votes to gain power was too much for societies emerging from intractable conflicts to bear. Today, this view has been turned on its head. Deeply divided societies can only make a sustainable exit from intractable conflict if they embrace the imperfect alternative to war of competition for power through voting, political parties, parliaments, and public participation. Scholar Larry Diamond summarizes the view of scholars and practitioners today in arguing that "sustained interethnic moderation and peace follow from
Such institutional provisions and protections are not only more significantly likely under democracy, they are only possible with some considerable degree of democracy."
The challenge for practitioners in intractable conflicts is to carefully analyze how the process of peacemaking can simultaneously be one of democratization. Critical issues are the timing of inaugural elections and the ways in which to build trust and confidence in electoral outcomes, the creation and design of appropriate political party systems that promote compromise among contending groups, the building of a civil society that cross-cuts lines of conflict, close attention to the local dimensions of conflicted urban settings, and developing innovative methods for ensuring broad popular participation in decision making. Over time, the structured, rule-bound conflict that is the principal feature of democracy will ideally supplant the unstructured, often violent interactions that are the characteristics of intractable struggles in so many of today's deeply divided societies.
 There is an ongoing debate among observers of transition to democracy about when it can be said that the transition to democracy has reached a point of no return, and thus the change to a new political system is "consolidated." See Thomas Carothers, "The End of the Transition Paradigm," Journal of Democracy January 2002, pp. 5-20).
 Donald Rothchild, Racial Bargaining in Independent Kenya: A Study of Minorities and Decolonization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
 Ben Reilly and Andrew Reynolds, Electoral Systems and Conflict in Divided Societies, Papers on International Conflict Resolution (Washington: National Academy Press, 1999). See also The International IDEA Handbook on Electoral System Design (Stockholm: International IDEA, 1997).
 Ralph Premdas, "Public Policy and Ethnic Conflict," UNESCO MOST Discussion Papers Series, No. 12 (Geneva: UNESCO, n.d.)
 Successful post-war democratization can be defined as a transition that has ended violent confrontation and supplanted it with rule-bound competition. For a consideration of success in peace settlements, see Fen Hampson, Nuturing Peace: Why Peace Settlements Succeed for Fail, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996): pp. 8-11.
 Donald Horowitz, "Democracy in Divided Societies," Journal of Democracy 4.4 (1993): pp. 18-38.
 For an overview of the options, see Peter Harris and Ben Reilly, Democracy and Deep Rooted Conflict: Options for Negotiators (Stockholm: International IDEA 1998).
 Ashutosh Varshley, "Ethnic Conflict and Civil Society," World Politics 53 (2001): 362-98.
 For an overview of the importance of local-level democracy in conflict management, see Timothy Sisk et al, Democracy at the Local Level: The International IDEA Handbook on Participation, Representation, Conflict Management, and Governance, (Stockholm: International IDEA, 2001).
 See David Bloomfield, Peacemaking Strategies in Northern Ireland: Building Complementarity in Conflict Management Theory (New York: St. Martin's, 1997).
 See John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1997.
 Larry Diamond, Promoting Democracy in the 1990s: Actors and Instruments, Issues and Imperatives (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, 1995). Note: bullets added here, not present in the original.
Use the following to cite this article:
Sisk, Timothy D.. "Democracy and Conflict Management." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/bi-essay/democ-con-manag>.