Supporting Democracies that are Resilient to Violent Conflict

NDI marks International Day of Peace by launching a blog series on supporting democratic resilience to violent conflict. Pictured above, Zambian youth leaders meet with Martin Luther King III at an NDI-sponsored event to provide young leaders with anti-violence training and a platform on which to speak out against electoral violence. 

A key goal of democratization is peaceful politics. Political battles may be inevitable, but in stable democracies they are not waged by armed groups, but through institutions such as elections, parliaments, the media, and civil society organizations.

Through its focus on peace, security, and democratic resilience, NDI helps democratic actors recover from violent conflict and manage the myriad of shocks and stressors that threaten to tip fragile democracies into violence. This blog post is the first in a series marking the International Day of Peace on September 21 that will highlight NDI’s approaches to supporting resilient democracies.

A large body of research shows that mature democracies have the lowest levels of violence towards their own citizens and are more peaceful neighbors than autocratic states. However, less established democracies are at greater risk for violent conflict and political instability, often due to weak political institutions and low levels of economic development.

To avoid and recover from violent conflict, democratic systems must develop resilience at multiple levels: institutions, policies and norms.

As the saying goes, “war is politics by other means.” Democratization is an intensely political process to tame conflict so that laws and citizens, rather than guns and warlords, rule.

First, a democracy must have functioning institutions that manage political conflict through accepted rules and decisionmaking procedures. Parliaments provide a forum for deliberating and resolving policy differences, and elections settle contests for power in a fair and transparent manner. Political parties are key institutions that develop contrasting policies and field candidates to give citizens meaningful political choices. Civil society organizations voice citizen priorities and hold their governments accountable to the people. These institutions channel conflict and create a political process that addresses citizen needs.

Second, political institutions must generate and implement inclusive policies and practices that deliver public goods – such as security, educational and economic opportunities, justice, and respect for individual and collective rights – equitably across diverse social groups.

Last, but not least, citizens and leaders must support democratic norms by sharing power, accepting institutional decisions or contesting them through peaceful political tactics, and cooperating across political and social differences to solve shared problems.

All three levels are closely intertwined. When institutions are weak, they can be easily co-opted by leaders who favor some groups at the expense of others. The legitimacy of democratic systems declines as marginalized groups lose trust in the political process and resort to violence to defend their interests. Alternately, low trust among political and civic leaders, whether due to legacies of violent conflict or weak power-sharing traditions, can fuel political polarization and gridlock that weakens institutions. When political leaders cannot negotiate with one another, urgent problems facing fragile post-conflict societies go unaddressed, undermining citizen confidence in the benefits of the emerging democratic system. In post-conflict societies in particular, legacies of hatred must be transformed to build the trust and social capital needed for effective institution-building and policymaking.

NDI builds conflict resilience at all of these levels - institutions, policies, and norms -  simultaneously, by promoting peaceful elections, bridging conflict divides, supporting effective post-conflict transitions, and ensuring citizen security and inclusive political processes. There are several approaches that can help achieve these goals:

  • As governance institutions develop, they must be transparent, accountable, and inclusive to gain legitimacy and give all parties a stake in the new system.
  • During elections, electoral management bodies must function effectively, transparently, impartially, and inclusively to be seen as legitimate, and they must win the trust of political leaders and citizens.
  • For their part, civil society should conduct robust, inclusive, and evidence-based monitoring of elections to increase incentives for political actors to behave peacefully and responsibly.
  • Public advocacy and education efforts for peaceful elections by civil society and political leaders promote emerging democratic norms of power-sharing and peaceful contestation.
  • Supporting the inclusion of women and other marginalized groups in political processes builds the legitimacy of the democratic system and creates citizen-centered policies.
  • When political and civic leaders come together across social divides to advocate for citizen priorities and participate in issues-based dialogue they develop constructive working relationships and social capital necessary for democracy to succeed.

As the saying goes, “war is politics by other means.” Democratization is an intensely political process that, if successful, tames conflict so that laws and citizens, rather than guns and warlords, rule. Peace is a dynamic relationship between competition and cooperation, an agreement to disagree, and a shared commitment to fight using political means rather than violence.