Sectarian Conflict And Why We Should Care About Constitutional Design

Leiden, a.d. prid. Kal. Oct. MMDCCLXVIII A.U.C.,

The list of ethno-religious civil wars is long, too long. To name but a few, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Rwanda, but also Switzerland and the UK, have all suffered, or are still suffering from sectarian conflict. The first five countries were all autocracies when civil strife occurred, introducing fair and representative political systems will always be difficult. There is fairly little we can do to prevent sectarian conflict from occurring in these place, as autocrats are not interested in preventing such conflict if it is in their benefit. However, Switzerland and the UK were democracies when they ran into trouble, surely democracies should be capable of writing constitutions which prevent ethno-religious tensions from occurring?

Often it is assumed, especially by journalists, but also by social scientists, that ethno-religious conflict stems from widespread feelings of hatred for other ethnic of religious groups, based on historical events in which one group brutally attacked, betrayed or suppressed the other group. However, there is one big issue with this approach. It fails to explain why some conflicts have not happened, and why groups without such negative histories are fighting each other. Why are Dutch Catholics not fighting Dutch protestants, while the Frisians declare their independence as long as Protestant politicians are too busy with beating the Catholics back into submission? This is not because there is no history of fighting and oppression, yet this scenario is so unlikely that this very question seems ridiculous. However, it does show that a history of ethno-religious tensions is not enough to explain why conflict does not flare up again.

If mass behaviour fails to explain sectarian conflict, elite behaviour is worth having a look at. Political leaders can easily exploit some long-forgotten event in which one group allegedly harmed the other, or the other way around, and many will do so, if this happens to be beneficial to them. Ethno-religious conflict appears to be largely based on the strategic possibilities political elites perceive. Of course there are situations in which one group has every reason to hate the other, because they really are oppressed, but there are also plenty of situation in which wars are started, and many innocent people lose their lives, simply because some people hope to gain some power or money. Thus, creating institutions which incentivize elites to promote ethnic harmony and dialogue, and to not create new, or use old cleavages to their benefit, can save lives. Seeing that the constitution of a country aims to guide the behaviour of political elites, such peace fostering institutions should be enshrined in the constitution.

There are two leading theories on how this can be done, both with unpronounceable names, consociationalism and centripetalism. The biggest similarity between the two theories is that they both argue that a constitution should ensure that people are politically represented. So rather than taking away the voice of a certain minority, it is actually vitally important to make sure their voice is heard, and that they are citizens with the same rights as any other person in that society. They mainly differ on how this should be done. Consociationalism argues that there should be some clear mechanism which divides power between the different ethnic or religious groups, so that the voice of every group will always be heard. A typical example is Lebanon, where the President has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the House a Shiite. This way every major Lebanese minority is represented, which allows for negotiation between the groups and prevents marginalization of one single group. Their voice is always heard as long as the power sharing mechanism is in place.

Meanwhile, centripetalism argues that democratic institutions should be designed in such a way, that politicians have an incentive to be moderate on ethno-religious issues, to try to gain the trust and vote of people from several groups, thus representing all citizens, rather than just those with a certain accent, language, skin colour or belief. Moreover, centripetalism holds that consociationalist power sharing mechanisms intensify, rather than mitigate ethno-religious tensions. Because power sharing mechanisms are rigid, and thus independent of the balance of power on the ground, bargaining about the mechanism itself will occur when the balance of power shifts, and might have to move outside of the consociationalist institutions. Moreover, when politicians in power do not depend on voters outside of their ethnic group, they can compete within their group on radical sectarian platforms. Combined with the rigidness of the consociationalist institutions, this is a recipe for disaster and instability (in a less violent way, this is also what seems to be happening in Catalonia and Scotland). A typical example of a country with a centripetal constitution is Indonesia, where the votes of Javanese citizens count for fewer parliamentary seats than the votes of those on the ‘outer’ islands. Moreover, the president needs to be nominated by political parties, right now there are 5 major parties, so parties have an incentive to compromise before elections, to make sure their voters will elect their president. Lastly, the president needs 50%+1 of all the votes, but also 20% in half of the provinces. So, in order to win, the president has to attract voters from different ethnic groups, as the largest group, the Javanese, make up only 41% of the total population.

This debate is vitally important, as ethno-religious conflict still occurs in many countries today. Even though in many situations there will not be a solution acceptable to all relevant parties, particularly in autocracies this seems likely, in other cases a ‘constitutional moment’ does occur, in which different groups lay down their arms, and try to achieve a fair and balanced system. Especially in (nascent) democracies ethnicity and religion should never be reasons to see civilizations plunge into barbarianism, if this could have been avoided by sound political institutions.

A history of sectarian tensions is not necessary for ethno-religious conflict to flare up, we should never underestimate the capacity of people to hate each other, to distrust others, and the willingness of politicians to exploit this. Reining in politicians by creating institutions which incentivize them to promote peace and inter-ethnic dialogue and respect, thus matters a great deal. So, consociationalism and centripetalism have practical implications for the way diplomats and politicians should approach sectarian conflicts. Even though the debate on the advantages and disadvantages of the two theories is still raging, being well informed should certainly help those who partake in writing new, or in reforming old, constitutions.


Bottom Line: Politicians can be egotistic and many of them will plunge their country into a civil war if it so happens that this benefits them, so we need to incentivize politicians of all communities in a society to promote peace and inter-communal respect. Constitutions can do so, by guiding politicians towards the right behaviour. Constitutional design matters!

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