Decentralizing Democracy: Governance in Post-conflict Ethnically Divided Countries1

By: MAJ Robert Miske

During our first few academic quarters at NPS, my thesis partner, Wing Commander Srinivas Ganapathiraju (Indian Air Force), and I engaged in some sporadic dialogue while reflecting on the idea of how a country's instability might make it the breeding ground for the kinds of insurgencies that are of interest to our respective countries' armed forces. Then, while reading the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy for one of our classes, we found ourselves questioning the premise of the "democratic peace theory" upon which much of U.S. strategy is based. We intuitively understood that democracy, in and of itself, may not be necessary or sufficient as a precondition for political stability in a given country. Context matters, and we were both driven to discover under what conditions governance could lead to greater stability in certain types of deeply divided societies, like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although the growth or decline of an insurgency depends on a number of factors, including the opportunities or threats the insurgency faces, its mobilizing structures, and the strength of the insurgents' cause, we chose to focus our attention on the opportunities and obstacles that are presented by a country's system of governance. While the idea of better understanding governance may not seem an obvious first choice for two combat veterans who have been involved in their respective countries' military efforts to counter insurgencies, we both felt that misaligned governance accounted for more of the problems with recent nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan than any misguided tactical, operational, or even strategic military efforts in either country.

Beyond identifying a problem with how each country's system of governance fit its population, our discussions kept bringing us back to the realization that there were distinct societal divides in both countries. In each case, governance was considered illegitimate by minority groups whenever they didn't have sufficient voice or representative authority within the central government. It was apparent, however, that some countries with similarly divided societies, like India, have managed to achieve considerable stability over time, thanks to more decentralized systems of governance. We wanted to know whether there was something intrinsically beneficial about India's model of governance that could be applied to other countries with deep-seated divisions. Specifically, we sought to discover whether there is a relationship between the decentralization of governance and political stability in deeply fragmented societies.

In the course of our early literature review and while designing the theoretical framework for our thesis proposal, we were introduced to the ideas of consociational democracy2 and social fit theory.3 Our discussions with faculty about these concepts were instrumental to how we conceived of both the governance problem that confronts divided countries, and a governance model to help stabilize such societies. We consequently formulated a framework to assess the degree of social fit between a country's method of governance and its population's ethnic fractionalization (or divisiveness).

In our framework, we listed some of the most important factors that comprise "national identity" (the column Independent Variables in Figure 1). We also included the four prominent tenets of consociational democracy that comprise power-sharing (the column Dependent Variables in Figure 1). We used this theoretical framework as a model to understand the various dynamics affecting a country's stability, and ultimately to test our hypothesis that correlates better "social fit" and greater decentralization with stability.

Although we arrived at our problem statement and research question fairly quickly, we knew that our methodology for studying the nature of the relationship between governance and stability required considerably more attention. It was important for us to devise our case selection criteria in such a way that we could be reasonably sure that if we saw a change in governance, we would see a corresponding change in stability. Furthermore, we wanted to limit our subset of countries to those that were not only highly fragmented, but had shown a propensity towards conflict as a result of those societal divisions. We decided that post-conflict ethnically divided countries would best meet these criteria and test our model.

To validate our methodology, we examined several indices that provide the most recent and objective analysis of countries' status. These include the Fund for Peace's "Failed States Index" and "Conflict Assessment Indicators" for 2006 and 2011, as well as James Fearon's 2003 "Ethnic and Cultural Diversity by Country."4 In addition to looking for countries that displayed a substantial increase or decrease in their overall composite conflict assessment indicators, we also looked for a corresponding increase or decrease in three indicators that we determined were most representative of instability resulting from a country's divided society: a legacy of vengeance seeking (group grievance or paranoia); the criminalization and/or de-legitimization of the state through corrupt or extra-legal practices; and the rise of factionalized elites. We also matched the countries' conflict assessment scores and regional rankings with their ethnic and cultural fractionalization scores and regional rankings. In both indices, higher scores meant a greater degree of conflict potential and fractionalization, respectively. We initially narrowed our selection to seventeen countries from four different regions (see Table 1). In the end, we selected six countries—three with increasing and three with decreasing stability across all four regions—all of them ranked high in terms of ethnic fractionalization and conflict based on ethnic divisions.

After performing a rigorous case study selection, we found ourselves needing to conduct further research on both consociationalism and decentralization in order to assess how both methods might be best adapted to a given country's "national identity" to achieve an optimal degree of social fit. In our thesis, we dedicated two chapters to understanding the nature of democracy in postconflict ethnically divided countries: exploring both the tenets of consociational democracy and how decentralization of various functions of governance can reduce the potential for conflict within a country. These theoretical chapters served a dual purpose: they enabled us to define the metrics by which we would analyze the nature of governance in our six case study countries, and provided a foundational understanding for how greater stability might be achieved in deeply divided countries.

Although many of the demographic, economic, geopolitical, and topographical factors affecting a country's stability can be quantified, our research suggested that, with respect to governance, it is legitimacy that matters above all else. Therefore, while it can be argued that one system of governance is superior to another if one relies on various quantitative indices, legitimacy turns out to be a function of individual and group perceptions that can be as diverse as the populations that generate them. This led us to build on the argument that John Bishop and Michael George made in their thesis: To gain legitimacy and reduce the potential for conflict, a system of governance must be designed with local, and thus societal, contexts in mind to achieve a social fit.

Following an analysis of Afghanistan, India, Rwanda, Kenya, Lebanon, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, we were able to conclude that a system of governance built around a decentralized framework offers a more viable option than any other currently being proposed for deeply divided societies. Our findings also suggest that tailored decentralization of governance functions requires steadfast adherence to consociational democracy tenets. Both, when done together, can achieve the "right" social fit for post-conflict ethnically divided countries. Although involvement by external actors, economic growth (or decline), and other geopolitical considerations can delay stability or serve as a catalyst for instability, it is the governance dimension of achieving a social fit that matters most.

About the Author(s): MAJ Robert Miske is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer.


1. This article is a synopsis of research done for a graduate thesis written while the author was a student in the Defense Analysis Department of the Naval Postgraduate School. See Srinivas Ganapathiraju and Robert Miske, "Decentralizing Democracy: A Governance Proposal for Post-conflict Ethnically Divided Countries," Master's thesis, Department of Defense Analysis, Naval Postgraduate School, December 2012.

2. Arend Lijphart, credited as the founding theorist of consociational democracy, observes that political stability is empirically related to both political culture and social culture. See Lijphart, "The Puzzle of Indian Democracy," American Political Science Review, vol. 9, no. 2 (June 1996): 258–268.

3. John Bishop and Michael George argue that the people's social acceptance of a post-conflict government is critical to fostering long-term stability. For more, see John D. Bishop and Michael J. George, "Governing in a Post- Conflict Society: Social Fit," Master's thesis, Department of Defense Analysis, Naval Postgraduate School, June 2011:

4. "Failed States Index 2006," The Fund for Peace, 2006:; "Failed States Index 2011," The Fund for Peace:–14-fs-failedstatesindex2011–1106p.pdf; "Conflict Assessment Indicators," The Fund for Peace, 2011:; all accessed July 18, 2012; and James D. Fearon, "Ethnic and Cultural Diversity by Country," Journal of Economic Growth vol. 8 (2003): 215–219.

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