Several rounds of peace negotiations between the main protagonists – Riek Machar and Salva Kiir – have not yet brought an end to the violence that is tearing the social fabric of South Sudan apart. The cycle of events shows how the many can suffer at the hands of the few. At the same time, the Afghan technocrat-cum-warlord government of President Ghani and CEO Abdullah attempts to increase security and prosperity while also maintaining networks of customary authority, patronage and grand corruption – rendering the war of attrition against the Taliban un-winnable. It shows how the forces of modernity and traditional rule compete and mesh in the cauldron of conflict. Many conflict-affected and fragile settings feature shades of grey of these examples. Negotiating peace in complex wars in Syria, Libya or Yemen on the one hand, and efforts to rationalise ‘hybrid’ governance arrangements in Somalia, the DRC, and Lebanon all offer contemporary illustrations of the challenges involved. What these cases share despite their numerous differences, is that international actors increasingly analyse their domestic power balance through the concept of a ‘political settlement’.
A political settlement is shorthand for the set of (in)formal representation, control and distribution rules between national political elites that guide governance and resource allocation in a particular country. These elite groups negotiate the extent to which they can pursue their interests on the basis of their relative power and skill within the boundaries of what their constituencies tolerate. The settlement that is the outcome of these negotiations is argued to influence the type of institutions that can exist and the nature of their performance. For example, an informal parameter of Iraq’s political settlement is that, whatever their differences, its main Shi’a parties unite when it matters to retain their dominance over the central Iraqi state.
The focus on politics and power that the concept of political settlement brings to the analysis of developmental problems is a welcome analytical tool for development and humanitarian policy makers. It is especially relevant in fragile or conflict-affected societies where lower levels of social capital reduce the ability of the population to contest elite preferences and where violence is reinforced by social norms that facilitate its contagion. Nevertheless, a more critical analytical perspective on the application of the concept of political settlements is warranted for several reasons. Key among those is that its use is likely to perpetuate existing ‘arrangements to rule’ between the selected few. This can reinforce structural conflict drivers that mostly benefit those with guns, funds or status and entrench inequalities that are difficult to remedy.
From this perspective, the establishment of a Peace- and Statebuilding Goal (PSG) entitled ‘achieving legitimate politics through fostering inclusive political settlements and conflict resolution’ by the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, strengthens the conception that the procedural aspects of legitimacy can be furthered through elections that in turns progress democracy. In practice, international statebuilding’s focus on elections as a viable pathway out of conflict tends to legitimise the status quo. This perpetuates the dominance of powerful elites that were often at the root of the conflict. For example, in Afghanistan as the competition between elite networks over the state has shaped the very nature of politics in Afghanistan since 2001. Elections in 2009 and more recently, have failed to overcome the logics of ethno-regional solidarity and patronage relations in Afghanistan. Unlike previous political settlements such as the the Riwalpindi Accord 1989; the Peshawar Accord 1992; and the Macca Accord 1993, the logic of the externally driven 2001 Bonn agreement was largely socially and politically constructed by external powers.
According to Heathershaw and Sharan (2011), the 2009 presidential election marked the negotiation and re-negotiation of these societal logics. It was a forum for conflict and compromise between two opposing elite networks – namely the oppositional former Northern Alliance (NA) Jihadis, in particular the Panjesheri in Shura-yi Nezar, the military wing of the Jamiat Tanzim, represented by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, and the incumbent President Karzai network, represented by the post-Bonn Western-educated technocratic elites who were brought in from the diaspora.
The former elite network emerged during the Jihad years, in particular 1992-2001, while the latter emerged with the outcome of the political settlement at the Bonn Conference in 2001. Both networks represent politically constructed ethno-regional factions which have been resourced by decades of intervention and interference by Western, Soviet and regional powers. The 2009 presidential election was a last attempt by the former network, the Jamiat Tanzim (predominantly ethnically Tajik), to regain its political dominance of 2001-4.
However, these two political networks are fluid as they have been reinforced, renewed, and reproduced in the post-Bonn statebuilding process and regime formation. Most of the Northern Alliance elites, especially those not belonging to the Jamiat Tanzim, have been effectively co-opted to the dominant network through bargains and exchange.
Elite bargaining within a loose and evolving political settlement remains a key source of instability as evidenced by the 2014 electoral compromise. The government of national unity has been far from smooth sailing, with the two leaders disagreeing on a number of issues. Meanwhile, the Taliban have gained strength, and President Ghani has not succeeded in convincing them to come to the negotiating table.
The consequence of the idea that elections can significantly influence the composition and dynamics of a political settlement is that elections as events tend to sanction the status quo that effectively perpetuate the dominance of powerful elites that were often at the root of the conflict. The fact that these elites are elected after the event is of course convenient for international actors as it relieves them from the much more complex task of engaging with hybrid governance structures. While it confers greater legitimacy on their support for the central state and provides them with a convenient exit strategy. It also overlooks ‘hidden’ social capacities and tends to underemphasise alternative political pathways to developmental change.
Image: Salva Kiir Mayardit, President of the Government of Southern Sudan that speaks to news reporters outside the Security Council chamber at United Nations Headquarters in New York, United States of America. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.