Focus on the Non-Electoral Ingredients of Democratization

To similarly prevent state capture by anointed elites, a gradual and more expansive course of peacebuilding that defers elections and focuses on institutionalization seems inescapable. Roland Paris’s call for a strategy of “institutionalization before liberalization,” for example, is echoed by Francis Fukuyama, who argues that democratization before statebuilding is often a recipe for patronage and corruption.[1] Moreover, both the peacebuilding and democratization literatures hold that the transition to democracy in post-conflict states is inherently more destabilizing than stabilizing, especially as elites seek ways to mobilize popular support in thinly institutionalized contexts.[2] Thus, a gradual and expansive course of democracy-building that defers elections seems most desirable, together with processes of political accommodation and institution building to strengthen political and governance arrangements at national and subnational levels.

In particular, postponing elections does not mean that participation has to be attenuated. Non-electoral forms of national- and local-level input can be brought into policymaking and accountability mechanisms - through, for example, traditional consensus institutions such as the Afghan loya jirga, or grand council meeting, or the Timorese nahe biti bo’ot system of conflict resolution handled by village elders.[3] But it is almost invariably the case that the various UN agencies and partners associated with multidimensional peace operations view elections as the main end point and goal of the transformative peacebuilding effort, even if they are not explicitly mandated as an exit strategy.[4] Hastily designed and held elections from Bosnia to Afghanistan to the Congo have further polarized political groups and reinforced the authority of political entrepreneurs with non-moderate viewpoints.

Traditional sources of authority, by contrast, while certainly often arbitrary and parochial, typically serve some of the objectives associated with effective and legitimate governance, especially when customary forms of participation and consultation are built in. This is not to propose traditional authority in lieu of democratic legitimacy, nor to suggest that the traditional is intrinsically desirable; it is simply to note that the innovative coexistence of different forms of governance is possible and can be constructive. Indeed, transformative attempts that ignore customary governance practices typically find major obstacles to constructing effective and legitimate governance.45 Even kinship- based patrimonial networks, in this view, might serve as important building blocks of effective and legitimate political order - in particular, neopatrimonial networks can serve a crucial function in binding local elites to a center-driven statebuilding process.[5] Attempts to incorporate traditional forms of authority into a peacebuilding strategy must, of course, be rooted in locally contextualized knowledge and engagement. Caution and even skepticism are certainly warranted as to the notion that international actors could properly interpret traditional practices and incorporate them into interventions - but peace operations could and should at least create political and institutional spaces in which traditional practices could assert themselves more organically. This would constitute a peacebuilding approach very different from the technocratic norm managed by international agencies from on high.

In a similar vein, instead of relying simply on a centralized semisovereign body to provide local input and validation, peacebuilding interventions can emphasize and foster broader political involvement during the transitional process at both the central and subnational levels. Here, I am echoing Oliver Richmond’s call to view peace formation as a bottom-up process emerging from non-elite sites of legitimate authority.[6] In East Timor, the UN failed to capitalize on an ambitious community empowerment project that could have helped it to generate and incorporate political participation at the provincial level, thereby paving the way for FRETILIN to consolidate its power at the center. In Cambodia and Afghanistan, too, the focus of transitional governance was squarely on the capital city and a small strata of urban political elites, with little attention paid to subnational participation even as peacebuilders recognized the importance of state-society and political ties at the local level. In Afghanistan, and probably also in Cambodia after the defection of the Khmer Rouge, this approach was due in part to the security situation - but it also reflected the elite-oriented nature of the theory underpinning these interventions.[7] In all three countries, the elites empowered by the UN as key counterparts were able to rely on and build upon their existing subnational infrastructure - and, in each case, that strategy deepened after the first election. The policy implication is straightforward: more attention must be paid to subnational political dynamics and potential power balancers outside the capital.

  • [1] Fukuyama 2005, 2011; and Paris 2004.
  • [2] Mansfield and Snyder 1995; Paris 2004; and Snyder 2000.
  • [3] Anderson 2014b. 4 Caplan 2012; Lyons 2002; and Zaum 2012.
  • [4] 45 Bowles and Chopra 2008; and Boege, Brown, and Clements 2009.
  • [5] Kelsall 2012; Migdal 1988; and Smith 2014.
  • [6] Richmond 2005, 2014.
  • [7] Autesserre 2010 delivers a vivid indictment of the capital- and elite-centricstrategy of the UN’s peace operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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