Making Power-Sharing Work: The Role of Mediation

15 May 2019   ·   ​​Alexandre Raffoul

While the promise of power-sharing is often necessary to reach peace agreements, power-sharing institutions are unlikely to function effectively in post-conflict settings. Mediation can help making power-sharing work – if it improves inter-elite relationships, addresses issues unresolved in peace agreements, and provides a framework for local conflict resolution.

Power-sharing has become one of the most common features of contemporary peace agreements. Yet, it is also at the center of a key dilemma of contemporary peacemaking, the ‘power-sharing dilemma’, which stems from the contradictory effects of power-sharing on short-term peacemaking and the long-term peacebuilding.

Power-sharing agreements attribute shares of power – such as seats in parliament or ministerial portfolios – to the parties in conflict. In the short run, such provisions are often necessary to reach a peace agreement, because the parties seek guarantees against exclusion from power in the post-agreement phase.

Making power-sharing work on the long run, however, proves incredibly challenging. To function effectively, power-sharing institutions require cooperation between elites across conflict lines. In post-conflict contexts, often marked by a history of violence, hate speech, and mutual demonization, this is easier said than done. In the absence of cooperation, power-sharing governments and parliaments are unable to pass much-needed legislation, deliver public services, and maintain security. This can lead, at best, to governmental paralysis, at worst, to conflict relapse.

This piece identifies four ways in which external governments, international and regional organizations, and local peacemakers can use peace mediation to help mitigate this dilemma. Peace mediation is defined by Touval and Zartman as ‘a mode of negotiation in which a third party helps the parties find a solution that they cannot find by themselves.’ Mediation is no panacea for making power-sharing work – but it can contribute. In particular, its continuation after the signature of a peace agreement can help elites overcome key obstacles to cooperation.

1. Improve Inter-Elite Relationships

A first barrier to elite cooperation in post-conflict settings is the poor inter-personal relationship between political leaders.

Effective power-sharing requires a transformation of the relationship between politicians from enmity to at least a minimal level of trust and understanding necessary to work together. Mediators can help improving this relationship by acting as ‘repositories of trust’, organizing workshops with political leaders to socialize them to peaceful cooperation, and promoting inter-personal dialogue, both during and after peace negotiations.

In Burundi, the Arusha peace talks – held in Tanzania between 1998 and 2000 – have been described as a ‘group therapy’ where the parties could voice their concerns, listen to each other, and progressively develop a mutual understanding. While this was insufficient to address the many challenges facing the country, it certainly helped. As Reyntjens observes, in the mist of implementation difficulties, politicians ‘refrained from taking positions likely to result in violent deadlock, and used language that was conducive to keeping communication channels open.’

2. Address ‘Creative Ambiguity’ in Peace Agreements

A second barrier to elite cooperation is the presence of unresolved issues or ‘creative ambiguity’ in the peace agreement. These often become the source of mistrust and disagreements that complicate the implementation of the agreement.

Resolving these issues is necessary to achieve functioning power-sharing. This often requires the continuation of negotiations in the implementation phase, as well as the adoption of additional agreements where the parties codify their arrangements on specific issues. Mediators can support this process by creating communication channels, setting up forums for dialogue, and drafting proposals of solutions to contentious issues.

In Northern Ireland, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement left unresolved some of the most contentious issue of the peace process: the decommissioning of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the reform of the local police. These issues effectively delayed the establishment of a stable Northern Ireland Assembly for almost a decade. Uninterrupted shuttle diplomacy by the British and Irish governments as well as the work of independent commissions were necessary to progressively address them. This led to the adoption of the St-Andrew Agreement in 2006, which opened a decade of relatively effective power-sharing.

3. Broaden the Power-Sharing Coalition

A third barrier to elite cooperation is the existence of intransigent parties who mobilize the population along wartime cleavages to derail power-sharing or use violence to obtain a share of power.

While focusing on the ‘moderates’ to reach a peace agreement might be necessary, the power-sharing coalition should progressively be broadened to include all the relevant political players. Mediators can facilitate this process by creating communication channels – such as backchannels, shuttle diplomacy, proximity talks, or face-to-face meetings – to initiate negotiations with actors that are not part of the original agreement.

In Nepal, the adoption of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was followed by the emergence of a myriad of small armed group who staked their claim to power using protests, blockades, agitation, and uprisings. These groups were appeased and included in the peace process through bilateral negotiations with the Nepalese government – often facilitated by different informal mediators, including journalists, local mediators, civil society activists, and international facilitators – as well as the election of broadly inclusive Constituent Assemblies.

4. Manage Local Disputes

A fourth barrier to elite cooperation is that power-sharing agreements are elite pacts that often fail to resolve local disputes. These disputes risk escalating into nation-wide conflict.

Mediation at the local level can help to resolve or at least manage local disputes. It can take place on an ad hoc basis, when local or external mediators intervene in times of crisis, or on an institutionalized basis, with the establishment of Local Peace Committees or other types of infrastructure for peace.

In Northern Ireland, parades were the source of major tension and violence every summer. In 1998, the Drumcree confrontation threatened to derail the fragile Good Friday Agreement. Shuttle diplomacy and proximity talks mediated by local go-betweens and the British Government were necessary to manage the crisis before it destabilized the peace deal.

Peace Through Power-Sharing is not an Event but a Process

This discussion suggests three key takeaways for practitioners dealing with power-sharing.

First, power-sharing should be understood not only as a set of rules, but also as a relationship between political actors. While the design of power-sharing institutions is essential, cooperation between political elites is also paramount in making power-sharing work. Peacemakers should therefore focus both on designing a good agreement and improving the relationship between conflict parties during and after peace negotiations.

Second, peace through power-sharing should be approached not as an event, but as a process. While reaching a peace agreement is a key milestone in a peace process, achieving effective power-sharing typically requires not one, but a series of agreements, that complete and revise each other. To facilitate this process, power-sharing agreements should create a framework for the continuation of assisted negotiations in the post-agreement phase. They can do so by including mandates for mediators and independent commissions, mechanisms for dispute resolution and for the review of the agreement, or requirements for constitutional revision.

Third, ‘elite-driven’ and ‘people-driven’ approaches to conflict resolution should not be understood as contradictory, but as complementary endeavors. While power-sharing agreements are elite pacts, popular concerns should be taken into consideration because elites are constrained by their constituencies. A framework for the resolution of local disputes, such as local peace committees or infrastructure for peace should therefore be created and institutionalized alongside power-sharing agreements.