Constitutional Design: Promoting Multi-Ethnic Democracy

By Reynolds, Andrew | Harvard International Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Constitutional Design: Promoting Multi-Ethnic Democracy

Reynolds, Andrew, Harvard International Review

The crafting of democracy in a fragile and divided state, often ripped apart by internal conflict or buffeted by international and regional storms, is one of the most difficult and important tasks that international politicians face. The ever-deteriorating conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been driven in large part by mistakes of institutional design in the immediate post-conflict period. Implementing a well-crafted constitution tailored to the peculiarities of a divided nation state is not the solution to ethnic conflict. However, there has never been an enduring peace settlement in which a well-designed, multi-ethnic government was not central. Designing a suitable democracy is a necessary, if not sufficient, prerequisite for stability in a divided society.


A democracy is an interconnected web of political institutions chosen by and beholden to the voters who fall under its laws and regulations. But that web must be tethered to the distinct cultural, historical, and social threads that bind a state together. A post-conflict constitution needs to reflect traditional ways of making decisions, dominant power centers in villages and cities, and the scope of ethnic divisions--in both their intensity and root causes.

A constitution stipulates the ground rules of the democratic game. Thus I shall use the terms "constitutional design" and "democratic design" interchangeably, although a constitution necessarily speaks to issues beyond the scope and derivation of institutions of governance. A good constitution is a pillar of interethnic harmony, but it is only one pillar. Even when constitutional designers are successful, the new state can be thrown back into violence and chaos by regional conflict or meddling neighbors.

But when it comes to building stability and managing ethnic conflict, well-crafted political structures are the best way of dealing with communal conflicts existing within nation states. A credible and well-developed constitution assuages minority fears and feelings of alienation. In a divided society there are two elements of building ethnic stability. First, each significant ethnic group must feel included and acknowledged in the running of the state. Second, weaker groups and individuals must be protected. It is quite possible for a state to include a minority group in government while not protecting the rights of that group. Alternatively, a state can protect but not acknowledge the minority voice when making decisions of governance. A state can have one without the other, but true ethnic accommodation requires both. Protection is ultimately legal, yet inclusion is a crucial characteristic of good--and workable--politics. Thus I will focus here on the constitutional elements which can manifest inclusion.

Democratic Design in Afghanistan and Iraq

With such burgeoning instability in both Afghanistan and Iraq, one might pose the question: How central is domestic constitutional design to the future of Afghanistan and Iraq? It certainly could be argued that defeating the insurgencies, eliminating corruption, and rebuilding each country's socioeconomic infrastructure are more pressing problems than imperfect elections and legislative maneuvers. But in fact, the emergence of workable democratic political structures has been central to both states' survival since the US-led occupations, and without attention to institutional design, democratic slippage may doom both countries to increasing fragmentation and violence. A vacuum of legitimate political power, if allowed, will set the stage for insurgency and instability.

The situation in Afghanistan remains a highly complex mosaic of age-old ethnic enmities, power plays, and struggles over religion, nationhood, and wealth. These tensions permeate the state's political discourse and particularly come to a head in debates over how democracy in Afghanistan should be crafted, who will receive power, how leaders will be chosen, and how their power, once bequeathed, will be restrained. …

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