Democracy and Conflict

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One of the virtues that many scholars attribute to democracy is that nations adopting it tend to be less violent and much less inclined to enter into conflicts with others. According to this, democracy obliges governments and populations to resolve their problems through negotiation, which ordinarily debars open conflict. The theoretical logic is impeccable: a) political leaders in a democracy are required to respond to their electorate and, if they lose a war, they lose at the ballot box; b) democracies possess a natural proclivity to abstain from viewing other actors as hostile: all are potential allies; and c) democracies typically develop sturdier economic strategies, which in the main are not compatible with military conflicts. In a word, democratic leaders lack incentives to fight.
The Arab Spring was widely acclaimed, in part because of the end of authoritarian or military governments that it entailed, but also owing to the presumption that this would diminish regional conflict. I ask myself whether there are lessons that we can derive from this experience in Mexico, as much for the enthusiasm at the outset as for the disenchantment downriver.
In Mexico we have been privileged not to live in the vicinity of neighbors prone to war, at least not in the last one hundred fifty years, a circumstance that’s afforded us the luxury of feeling ourselves to be immune to these matters. When encountering conflicts, Mexicans tend to support those we identify as the victim but without an inherent awareness of what war denotes. According to some historians, the very notion of “Mexicanness” was born with the United States’ invasion of Mexico in 1847, but the sense of victimhood, said Octavio Paz, stems from pre-Colonial roots. History and neighborhood have dealt us a sui generis perspective of wars.
That from which we haven’t been exempt from is internal conflict. Beyond organized crime, the country currently withstands an untold number of conflicts that reveal a pre-democratic political state. Conflicts such as those of Oaxaca and their supposed educators, the seizure of buildings and universities in Mexico’s Federal District, work stoppages, and demonstrations designed to affect the citizenry or to close highways, are nothing but tangible examples of a pre-democratic political system. The conflicts are not resolved in the political instances (such as the Congress) or in the judicial ones. Instead of negotiation, militants employ instruments of force and pressure oriented toward imposing solutions. Certain politicians and parties are more apt to utilize this type of means, but overall, the differences are not dramatic. When a party is not in power they use anti-institutional instruments of pressure that they would never tolerate were they in power.
From this perspective, although we are unacquainted with war as a political instrument, national politics continues to evidence nondemocratic facets and methods of conflict resolution typical of corporativist, or authoritarian, political systems. Manifestations of this nature are only possible when their utilization produce results. That is, while the authority continues to favor conflict resolution in the streets above institutional instances, the conflict will go on. All are rational actors.
This should not be understood as a call for the use of firm-handedness. A government decided on favoring the institutionalization of political processes would have to progressively force –without violence but with authority- political actors to incorporate themselves into these circuits. As exemplified by union leaders who allied themselves with the government after the detention of the teachers’ union kingpin or by the owners of the telecommunications entities commending an action that severely affected the value of their companies, all the actors are rational: they all know how to read the political maneuvers and they adjust to the new reality.
A government determined to establish new rules of the game would have to begin by constructing a novel institutional structure susceptible to contributing to the achievement of these objectives. To endure, a process of political change cannot depend on how a person or a government acts, but rather on the existence of permanent rules that only institutions can underwrite.
Democracy, noted Joseph Schumpeter, is nothing more than a method for making decisions that leaves political actors no option but to submit to the normative framework and not tolerate conduct foreign to this. In Holland, the head of the Liberal Party once affirmed that he would never offend any other member of parliament because “one never knows with whom one will be required to forge a coalition in the future”. Such is the spirit of an institutionalized society.

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Luis Rubio

Luis Rubio

He is a contributing editor of Reforma and his analyses and opinions often appear in major newspapers and journals in Mexico, the US and Europe (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio).