Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States
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Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States

Edited by Graham K. Brown and Arnim Langer

The Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States brings together contributions from a multidisciplinary group of internationally renowned scholars on such important issues as the causes of violent conflicts and state fragility, the challenges of conflict resolution and mediation, and the obstacles to post-conflict reconstruction and durable peace-building.
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Chapter 29: Complex power sharing

Stefan Wolff


The democratic governance of divided societies can pose particular challenges. This well-rehearsed mantra among students of ethnic conflict and conflict settlement has its origins in John Stuart Mill’s scepticism of even the possibility of democracy ‘in a country made up of different nationalities’ (Mill 1861 [1962], p. 230), as well as in empirically observable violent ethnic conflict around the globe. Yet, while ethnic diversity is the predominant demographic rule in most countries today, violent ethnic conflict remains the exception. Thus, diversity need not inevitably result in either prolonged violent ethnic conflict or the break-up of existing states. Rather, existing literature on the subject offers both normative accounts of the desirability, and empirical evidence of the feasibility, of designing institutional frameworks within which disputes between different conflict parties can be accommodated to such an extent that political compromise becomes preferable to violent struggle, at least for the majority of parties involved in the conflict in question. The flipside of this argument is that ‘it is . . . in divided societies that institutional arrangements have the greatest impact [and that] institutional design can systematically favour or disadvantage ethnic, national, and religious groups’ (Belmont et al. 2002, p. 3). Consequently, while there is agreement that institutions matter because they can provide the context in which differences can be accommodated and managed in a non-violent, political way, the existing literature on conflict settlement qua institutional design offers no consensus view about which are the most suitable institutions to achieve this. This debate about how to design institutions to achieve sustainable peace in divided societies has engulfed the theory and practice of ethnic conflict resolution for more than four decades, and has mainly been fought between advocates of consociationalism and their opponents. The disagreements between them have not subsided over the years and remain as divisive as ever.

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