Guest Column

On Divided Societies, Democracy and Federalism

By Igor Blazevic 2 April 2014

As discussions about constitutional reform and a more federated political system for Burma heat up, Czech-based human rights activist Igor Bazevic offers up nine theses and a final thought on the challenges the country faces.

No. 1: Deep divisions within pluralistic societies are favorable for creating and sustaining authoritarian systems. Many multi-ethnic societies are not democratic.

No. 2: Authoritarian systems have a strong tendency to be centralized and unitary, even if some pretend to be federal systems (like the former Soviet Union, or Russia today).

No. 3: Authoritarianism is not able to solve deep divisions. It only suppresses them, without dissolving them. To make things worse, authoritarian systems usually deepen and increase the extent of the problems in divided, pluralistic societies. In today’s world, authoritarianism does not work well as a nation-building system of governance, nor as a means of ruling “melting pot” societies. Maybe it was possible centuries ago to transform peasants in what is today France into the “French nation” through centralist policies of an absolutist state. Today something similar is far less feasible, if not completely impossible.

No. 4: Authoritarianism has a tendency, even if it did not start with this ambition, to increase domination of one identity group over the other or others. By doing so, it only deepens divisions. Sometimes it is the domination of a minority over the majority (like Alawites in Syria and Sunnis in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq). Other times it is the domination of a majority over smaller identity groups (like Turks over Kurds in Turkey or Bamar over everybody else in Burma).

No. 5: Crafting federal constitutions for pluralistic societies is among the most difficult of tasks.

No. 6: Deeply divided societies are not favorable grounds for a transition to democracy. Any transition to democracy from authoritarian rule is a complex and difficult task. It is much harder to democratize deeply divided societies. We need only look at the recent examples of countries where people power has toppled authoritarian rulers. Tunisia is a relatively homogenous country, and its transition to democracy has had its own challenges and problems. However, it is in better shape than any other “Arab Spring” country. Iraq and Syria are deeply divided societies along ethnic and religious lines, and their attempted transitions to democracy have resulted in bloody, destructive civil wars. Libya is a country with deep and long-existing tribal and regional divisions, and its attempted transition to democracy has finished in state fracture. Ukraine and Georgia are countries with deep divisions, and that has enabled the interference of a powerful and unfriendly neighbor—in both cases Russia, known in the political science lexicon as an “external spoiler” in this context. We witnessed something similar in the early ’90s with the democratization of the post-Soviet region. Multiethnic situations and deep divisions therein have been fertile ground for conflict and the re-emergence of new forms of authoritarianism and have generally not been favorable to the consolidation of democracy.

No. 7: Democracy (meaning respect for civil and political rights, along with free and fair elections and meaningful multiparty competition) does not immediately solve the problem of deeply divided societies.

No. 8: Democracy (defined more narrowly as a system in which free and fair elections are held) sometimes—some will say often—instigates and fuels even more fissures in deeply divided societies.

No. 9: Democracy, decentralization and federalism are a good—and probably the best and the only—way to solve deep divisions, but institutions need to be carefully selected and negotiated through inclusive, moderate and compromise-seeking processes. Not just any democratic institution helps. Some democratic institutions that work well in homogenous societies are harmful in highly pluralistic and divided societies. Only carefully selected, inclusive institutions can help; those that give incentives to competing parties to behave moderately.

A Final Remark: Burma is, to a great extent, a pluralistic society. In the language of political scientists Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz, Burma is “robustly multinational.” As political sociologist Larry Diamond has highlighted, Burma is one of the most divided societies to have ever undertaken the task of democratization. As a result, the country’s transition to democracy requires extraordinary maturity, far-sightedness and moderation by its political leaders. And it requires the willingness of its powerful military to accept fundamental change.

Igor Blazevic is a Czech-based human rights campaigner of Bosnian origin and the director of Educational Initiatives, a training program for Burmese activists based in Thailand.