Transitional Governance in Comparative Perspective

Post-conflict Cambodia, East Timor, and Afghanistan - the differences in the nature of their conflicts, brokered peace settlements, and evolving political landscapes notwithstanding - underwent remarkably similar transitional governance attempts at peacebuilding led by the United Nations. The sequence of formal institutional choices engineered by the transitional governance process and the core milestones obtained in each country are captured in Table 4.1.

Over the course of this sequence of interventions, the pendulum swung back and forth with regard to the perception of the “right” degree of UN peacebuilding presence. After UNTAC’s experience in Cambodia, observers concluded that UN peace operations typically had less than satisfactory impact because they were underresourced, in both financial and personnel terms, because their mandates were too circumscribed and failed to give them enough teeth to change the game on the ground, and because they were not coordinated appropriately. Responding to early critiques that UNTAC was not given enough of a mandate or resources in Cambodia, UN peace operations in East Timor (and Kosovo) a few years later were much larger, more comprehensive in terms of mandate remit, and even more encroaching on the sovereignty of their host countries. A few years later, however, responding to criticisms of heavy-handedness in East Timor, the UN elevated the importance of “country ownership” in preparing for the reconstruction process in Afghanistan and rolled out a “light footprint” UN presence that did not impinge so directly on the country’s sovereignty.[1] At UN headquarters, reforms since the turn of the century have attempted to remedy earlier pathologies created by the organizational make-up of the various departments involved in peace



East Timor


Peace Settlement

Paris Peace Agreement October 23, 1991

Independence referendum

August 30, 1999

Bonn Agreement

December 5, 2001

UN SC resolution creating transitional authority

United Nations Transitional

Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) UNSC Resolution 745 February 28, 1992

United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET)

UNSC Resolution 1272 October 25, 1999

United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)

UNSC Resolution 1401 March 28, 2002

Domestic counterpart for transitional government mechanism

Supreme National Council

Quadripartite arrangement to share Cambodian sovereignty between the four factions to the conflict. Established in 1990, leading to the Paris Accords; became UNTAC’s sovereign counterpart.

National Consultative Council (CNRT leaders + senior UNTAET staff)

Followed in July 2000 by East Timor Transitional Administration

(international-domestic coalition cabinet) AND National Council (broader Timorese representation)

Afghan Interim Authority Established at Bonn December 22, 2001

Afghan Transitional Authority Selected at Emergency Loya Jirga June 10-21,2002

Presidential election


April 14, 2002

Xanana Gusmao 83 percent

October 9, 2004 Hamid Karzai 55 percent

Parliamentary elections

May 23-28, 1993 FUNCINPEC 58 seats CPP 51 seats

Other opposition 10 seats Power-sharing compromise reached between CPP and FUNCINCPEC

August 30, 2001 FRETILIN 55 seats Democratic Party 7 seats Other opposition 16 seats

September and November 2005 High degree of fragmentation (>30 parties and factions) but three roughly equal blocs: pro-government; opposition supporters; unaligned

Constitutional assembly

Cambodia constituent assembly June-September 1993

East Timor constituent assembly Approved constitution on March 22, 2002

Afghan Constitutional Loya Jirga December 14, 2003-January 4, 2004


September 24, 1993

May 20, 2002

January 26, 2004

operations, establishing in 2005 a new intergovernmental UN Peacebuilding Commission to exercise strategic oversight across hitherto bureaucratically separated peacebuilding functions.[2] Overall, the effect of these reforms has been limited.

The evidence examined in this chapter should be taken as a firm warning that this type of attention to mandate scope and implementation as the route to improving peacebuilding is blinkered at best and, more likely, dangerously misguided. The cases examined here illustrate that none of the attempted policy shifts or nuances in the precise type or degree of transitional governance really mattered. In reality, it is the fact of transitional governance itself and its two hallmark characteristics - joint international-domestic governance and the simultaneous pursuit of statebuilding and democratization - that yields the perverse outcomes we see in practice. Interestingly, the latter feature is problematic even in cases where executive governance remains in the hands of domestic elites. Rene Lemarchand argues, for example, that the results of UN peace operations in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Rwanda also illustrate the “contradictions between statebuilding and democracy promotion, the two principal goals of peacemaking.”[3] Transitional regimes in Burundi and DRC - brokered and designed by outside actors but without an element of international governance - shared power among domestic elites, in interim arrangements preceding elections. Devon Curtis echoes the dynamics identified in this chapter in demonstrating how these transitional arrangements led to the entrenchment of certain actors and their consequent ability to develop an elite-centered system to share the political-economic spoils of power.[4]

The characteristics of peacebuilding through transitional governance enabled the winning elites in all three cases considered here to use (and continue to use, as the next chapter demonstrates) the full suite of institutional change agent strategies identified at the beginning of the chapter - insurrection, subversion, parasitism, and opportunism131 - in obtaining their preferred form of political order. I do not wish to imply an instrumental rationalist logic to the process of institutional change. It does not necessarily have to be intentional; it can come as the unintended consequence of distributional struggles in which no actor sought the transformation that actually occurs. The balance of authority between the international operation and its domestic counterparts is a crucial piece of the institutional change story - and that balance shifts over the course of a transformative peacebuilding intervention. From the moment a transitional governance mandate is signed, it becomes an obsolescing bargain: as soon as the intervention begins, the balance shifts so that the UN becomes dependent on its domestic counterparts for success and the bargaining power of the latter increases.[5] At the outset of an intervention, the ability of international peacebuilders to impose and enforce a particular set of institutional rules is relatively high; in turn, domestic elites have less discretion in interpreting those rules. As the intervention progresses, its ability to enforce a particular set of institutions - formal rules, policy structures, and norms - wanes quite quickly. At the same time, the discretion of domestic elites increases in making formal institutional choices and in developing informal strategies for operating within existing institutions. In the aftermath of interventions, those who advanced the rules and institutions in the first place - the international community through the peace operation - are left able only to turn a blind eye as long as the rules are not being opposed outright.

The international community’s model of peacebuilding through transitional governance has achieved only limited success because of a lack of systematic attention to the domestic political games in which it unfolds. A critical analysis of the transitional governance approach demonstrates that it transforms the political landscape in unintended ways, especially by making state- and democracy-building an elite project and thereby serving elite interests. Joint international-domestic governance and the simultaneous pursuit of statebuilding and democratization result in a domestic political dynamic that co-opts the peacebuilding intervention and systematically thwarts the consolidation of legitimate and effective governance. The following chapter extends this narrative by demonstrating how this dynamic continues to play out in the aftermath of intervention. In essence, the state becomes a pawn in the struggle for political power as domestic elites use their resources as patronage to cement their preferred neopatrimonial political order in place - with the result that state effectiveness is hampered and legitimate authority compromised. Governance outcomes come to reflect not the modern political order sought by international interventions but neopatrimonial political order instead.

  • [1] In a similar vein, UN transitional administrations in Kosovo and East Timordid not establish a timeline to exit at the outset of those missions becausesenior peacebuilding officials believed that the explicit timetable of theongoing Bosnian peace operation led to adverse consequences that eventually,and paradoxically, delayed exit. Zaum 2012: 147.
  • [2] United Nations 2004; UN Security Council Resolution S/RES/1645, 20December 2005; and UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/60/80, 30December 2005.
  • [3] Lemarchand 2012: 228. 3 Curtis 2007.
  • [4] 131 Mahoney and Thelen 2010.
  • [5] Doyle and Sambanis 2006: 309; and Vernon 1971.
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