Catalina Uribe Burcher is a program officer for democracy, conflict and security at International IDEA (Stockholm). Victoria Perotti is an associate program officer at International IDEA.
Today is International Day of Democracy, a good opportunity for the world to review its collective progress and setbacks on the road toward building representative, accountable and responsive governments. This year’s Democracy Day focuses on conflict prevention and how democratic institutions can be strengthened to promote peace and stability.
So, it is worth asking: Is democracy actually good for peace?
While democracy provides avenues to prevent and manage conflicts peacefully by allowing different voices to chime in on public debate, the current situation in Kenya makes us doubt its merits. Rising tensions and violence following the Supreme Court’s surprise decision to overturn the August presidential election resurrected painful memories from the 2007 election. The ensuing chaos and bloodshed that year “left over 1,000 dead and up to 500,000 internally displaced persons,” according to Human Rights Watch.
When we look at the big picture, democracy seems to catalyze the best and worst in our societies. We know that democratic transitions, such as when a country first introduces elections, typically generate instability and can trigger violence. But we also know that the more democratic a country is, the less likely it is to engage in conflict. This means that, while introducing democracy can generate short-term state fragility, the long-term benefits seem to outweigh the risks. All in all, democracy pays off.
As the world changes, however, so does the democracy-peace equation. According to a recent United Nations University report, in the past decade wars between states across the world have been decreasing. Yet wars within states are on the rise. Alas, these wars are also becoming deadlier, with a sixfold increase in battle deaths since 2011. Violence is also far likelier to return: 60 percent of conflicts in the early 2000s reemerged within five years. In short, internal conflicts are now more frequent, deadlier and more recurrent.
In emerging democracies, weak institutions and political and economic exclusion stand out as important drivers of conflict. They fuel violent extremists and organized criminals, both of which present increasing challenges to conflict prevention. Violent extremists are particularly problematic because, even though they pursue political agendas, their radical tilt allows little space to negotiate realistic solutions.
Organized criminal networks, for their part, pursue financial agendas rather than political ones, making them immune to the kind of political avenues normally used to deal with traditional armed actors. Most worrisome, crime groups thrive in contexts of state fragility. Their talent for corruption, which they use to buy elections and infiltrate political parties, further hollows out government institutions.
Today’s internal conflicts also complicate the story. Syria is a case in point. While the government and rebel groups are the ones officially fighting the war, the world’s great powers are also deeply involved. These international interests limit the reach that strengthening internal democratic institutions and processes can have to resolve the conflict.
So how, under these conditions, can democracy work to prevent conflict?
First and foremost, the international community should continue its efforts to tackle the underlying political dynamics driving current conflicts, internal or otherwise. We have been researching these strategies as part of International IDEA’s publication on “The Global State of Democracy” (to be released in November), looking at how democratic post-conflict transitions can be tailored to maximize success.
Our research shows that inclusive post-conflict transitions are more likely to result in resilient democracies. Inclusiveness in this sense doesn’t just mean giving all groups a place at the table. It requires giving them real decision-making powers, particularly at the local level. That, in turn, involves everyone in the outcome of the process and creates institutions well calibrated to respond to their needs. This is a key ingredient of conflict prevention.
It is also crucial that the modern conflict prevention agenda should hone in on the disruptive role of organized criminals and violent extremists. Here, too, ensuring the inclusiveness of democratic institutions and processes – chiefly elections, political parties and local administrations that give voice to those typically excluded – would go a long way to remove the seeds that allow these groups and networks to grow.
Finally, dealing with cross-border causes of conflict requires strong institutions for the support of global peace, which can provide channels for countries to communicate with each other and address their grievances before they escalate. The United Nations stands at the center of this effort. Yet it should be obvious to everyone that the global system for maintaining peace is in dire need of a makeover.
There is some good news, however. In 2015, the world agreed to pursue a joint sustainable development agenda, with 17 ambitious goals that range from ending poverty and hunger to promoting economic growth and clean energy consumption. The whole agenda was indeed built under the premise of “leaving no one behind,” and it created concrete and measurable actions to pursue inclusiveness. Notably, Sustainable Development Goal 16, which advances peace, justice and strong institutions, commits countries to ensure inclusive decision-making at all levels.
It is also telling that António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, used his first year in office to put conflict prevention at the front and center of his agenda – which is precisely why this year’s Democracy Day is focusing on that issue. Let’s hope that this moment can offer a new beginning for positive action.