Democracy and Conflict Management

Timothy D. Sisk

August 2003

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.

Additional insights into democracy and conflict management are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

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.[1] 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:

  • First, despite many trials and tribulations with democracy in today's multiethnic societies, no other form of government -- including non-democratic power sharing, party-based authoritarian control, rule by the military, or the overwhelming force of a dictatorship -- can more effectively reconcile competing social interests. For this reason, understanding how types and practices of democracy may contribute to or help exacerbate intractable conflict is a critical concern.
  • Second, among the possible ways of constructing a democracy, there is no single ideal set of institutions or practices that can guarantee democracy will help manage intractable conflicts in deeply divided societies. At the same time, given deep practitioner knowledge about a particular conflict, and a keen intuitive sense about how any given democratic institution or practice may work in a setting, practitioners can help shape the choices of protagonists in today's deeply divided societies in ways that promote compromise, conciliation, and conflict management.

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:

  • A transitional election that imbues a basic sense of legitimacy to the post-war ruling authority;
  • The emergence or re-emergence of political parties as primary organizations in the political sphere, and the decline of military or paramilitary influences;
  • A new structure to promote basic human rights;
  • The re-emergence of elections and some degree of political autonomy for municipal governments, local councils, and rural government structures;
  • Oversight and monitoring of elections, political parties, and human rights by external observers (in many cases in the 1990s, a United Nations Peacekeeping operation).
  • The "revival" of civil society, which is normally overwhelmed during times of war; and
  • Often, a process of constitution-making.

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.[2]

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.[3]

Inherent Problems

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

  • Parties in intractable conflict lack the inherent trust needed for democracy to prosper. For parties who were only recently at war, embracing democracy as a post-war system of conflict management is inherently risky because there is usually a deep-seated lack of trust, a pervasive fear of uncertainty. Why should parties in conflict accept the likely uncertainties of elections in a post-war democracy -- where there will be winners and losers at the polls? Why lose at the ballot box what was not lost on the battlefield?
  • Majority rule can mean majority tyranny. Conflicts that are fought along identity lines in which there is a clear majority and minority (like Sri Lanka, Kosovo, or Northern Ireland) seem especially ill-suited to "normal" majority democracy because parties in conflict expect that political majorities will not respect the rights and interests of minorities. This is especially true when there is an expectation in society that voting will occur along ethnic lines, such that referenda, political parties, and election outcomes will be the outcome of polls that are essentially an "ethnic census."
  • The persistence of deep divisions. With so many conflicts today fuelled by ethnic or religious ideologies, the core issue over which the war is fought -- exclusively defined ethnic identity is a significant barrier to striking a democratic compromise. When absolute claims for self-determination and independence clash with inflexible positions on territorial integrity, as in Russia/Chechnya, there is little room for compromise on basic principles of democracy as an alternative to war. Democracy requires a basic consensus on a future of living together, which may be absent in many intractable conflicts today.

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.[4]

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.[5] What lessons offer promise of improving the ability to create democratic institutions to manage deep-seated, post-war social differences?

  • Clearly define the goal of democracy early on in negotiations, create a plan, and define the path. To start democratization, an agreement must be reached early in peace negotiations. Such an agreement provides a clear normative framework that the outcome of any settlement is a democratic process. For example, in Northern Ireland, the ultimate outcome of the shaky peace process -- an elected assembly in Northern Ireland (along with North-South [Northern Ireland and Ireland] and East-West [Ireland and Britain] institutions -- has remained the same since the early stages of pre-negotiation (the Hume/Adams and Sinn Fein-Britain talks) in 1993. This early point of agreement has kept the process going despite many hurdles since that time.
  • Democracy in post-war divided societies requires a carefully crafted transitional plan that generates its own momentum. The early turn to elections without a long process of confidence building can be disastrous. The classic case is Angola's election of 1992, which was to quickly end a civil war there and implement a peace agreement; the election results were highly contested and the rebel movement UNITA returned to the battlefield rather than accept defeat at the ballot box. After the failed election, another 150,000 died in Angola's war before the conflict was finally brought to an end in 2001. When elections are the culmination of an extensive period of bargaining and trust-building, they are more likely to succeed.
  • Settlement terms should evaluate closely the design and effects of the choices parties make in negotiations on creating new political institutions. If carefully crafted democratic systems can create systems of incentives for encouraging non-violent approaches to conflict management -- for example, through the electoral system -- then the problems of trust, deep divisions, and fears of majority tyranny can be possibly ameliorated over time. Through "constitutional engineering," it may be possible to design a system of democracy that promotes moderation and compromise through the incentives generated by the underlying rules of the game; that is, to get elected, candidates for office may be encouraged to proffer the kind of moderate electoral appeals like those of South Africa 's ANC in 1994.[6] Most analysts agree that winner-take-all systems are inimical to conflict management in divided societies, although there is considerable debate among specialists on what alternative forms of democracy are inherently best.[7]
  • An integrated civil society that cross-cuts ethnic and other divisions provide an underlying basis for moderate politics and for democracy to be consolidated over the long run. Recent research shows that civil society groups that overlap lines of deep social conflict reduce the likelihood of violence and encourage trust in the society. This social "glue" also buttresses moderation among political parties and provides unofficial forums for interaction outside the formal structures of democracy.[8]
  • Local-level democracy offers multi-tiered processes to resolve complex conflicts. One often overlooked aspect of democracy in deeply divided societies is the importance of municipal, local level democracy, particularly in ethnically diverse and complex cities.[9] A multi-tiered approach is called for in which national-level bargaining in democratic institutions bolsters the work of community-level conciliators, and local-level confidence reinforces the pressures for peace at the top.[10]
  • Public participation is essential for a durable process of implementing democracy. For long-term peace, open participatory peacemaking may arguably build stronger support for the settlement. In South Africa, many initial agreements in 1991 and 1992 were made in secret among top political leaders such as Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, but later in the process, 1996, the final constitution was adopted only after unprecedented public participation in the drafting process. The conclusion is that secret agreements  make sense early, but in the long run if the search for peace doesn't broaden the agreement may not be sustainable over time. A useful analytical lens for analyzing tasks of post-war democratization is "conflict transformation," in which coherent efforts are put into place to build democracy and conflict resolution from the bottom up, over time.[11]

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

  • the frank recognition of plural identities,
  • legal protection for group and individual rights,
  • devolution of power to various localities and regions, and
  • political institutions that encourage bargaining and accommodation at the center.

Such institutional provisions and protections are not only more significantly likely under democracy, they are only possible with some considerable degree of democracy."[12]

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.

[1] 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).

[2] Donald Rothchild, Racial Bargaining in Independent Kenya: A Study of Minorities and Decolonization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

[3] 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).

[4] Ralph Premdas, "Public Policy and Ethnic Conflict," UNESCO MOST Discussion Papers Series, No. 12 (Geneva: UNESCO, n.d.)

[5] 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.

[6] Donald Horowitz, "Democracy in Divided Societies," Journal of Democracy 4.4 (1993): pp. 18-38.

[7] For an overview of the options, see Peter Harris and Ben Reilly, Democracy and Deep Rooted Conflict: Options for Negotiators (Stockholm: International IDEA 1998).

[8] Ashutosh Varshley, "Ethnic Conflict and Civil Society," World Politics 53 (2001): 362-98.

[9] 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).

[10] See David Bloomfield, Peacemaking Strategies in Northern Ireland: Building Complementarity in Conflict Management Theory (New York: St. Martin's, 1997).

[11] See John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1997.

[12] 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 <>.

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