Power-sharing measures, rules that allocate decision-making rights among groups competing for access to state power, appear to be experiencing something of a renaissance. A conflict resolution tool that has been used in a variety of contexts, power sharing was a prevalent feature of civil war settlements during the two decades following the end of the Cold War. In the face of a number of critiques of power sharing, and a decline in the use of negotiated settlements as a means of ending civil wars, agreements calling for rivals to share power largely disappeared during the past ten years.
The appearance of three new power-sharing arrangements during the first four months of this year is thus a matter of no small interest. These new deals consist of an agreement to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland; a settlement that attempts to end the civil war that has been raging in South Sudan for seven years; and a plan for Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz to alternate the office of prime minister and split a number of senior government ministries between their parties for a period of three years.
The appearance of these power-sharing agreements simultaneously with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic raises interesting questions regarding the potential the pandemic has to give rise to other such arrangements as well as the effects that power sharing might have in countries grappling with the health crisis. Although the deals in Northern Ireland and South Sudan, which were signed in January and February, clearly were not shaped by the spread of the coronavirus, Israel’s power-sharing arrangement, signed in April, does appear to have been prompted by the health emergency the country now faces. Having earlier declared he would not be part of a government headed by Netanyahu, Gantz agreed to a deal in the face of polls indicating that Israelis, worried about the coronavirus, wanted a unity government.
As the example of Israel indicates, the growing costs associated with the pandemic could induce governments and rival groups in polarized situations to agree to measures to help lessen sociopolitical tensions. President Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement of a month-long unilateral ceasefire with communist rebels in the Philippines suggests that governments, feeling pressure to mount a response to the pandemic, may be willing to enter into temporary ceasefires with nonstate actors. Fears of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Yemen, a country whose prolonged civil war has destroyed its health care system, also appear to have played a role in persuading parties to that conflict agree to a ceasefire.
While the cases noted above suggest the pandemic could give rise to some conflict mitigation efforts, the likelihood that the pandemic will induce governments engaged in civil war to enter into power-sharing agreements with their rivals is low. The coronavirus seems unlikely to alter the balance of power between opposing forces in such a manner as to convince governments of the need to share power with their adversaries. And, as international leaders focus on domestic issues associated with the pandemic, limited attention is likely to be focused on convincing warring actors to reach power-sharing agreements. Declining commitments to diplomacy and third-party guarantees are also likely to have a negative impact on fragile new power-sharing agreements such as that of South Sudan, where the pandemic has effectively brought the implementation process to a halt.
How might countries with power-sharing arrangements be expected to perform in the face of the pandemic? Shortly after the return to power sharing in Northern Ireland, Stormont’s attention became consumed by the need to respond to the growing pandemic. Although tensions among the political parties that make up the executive have begun to manifest themselves, Stormont politicians have assessed the threat to public health as being so grave that they see little prospect of the power-sharing arrangement breaking down.
The continued existence of a power-sharing government does not, of course, guarantee that it will respond successfully to crises. For example, in those instances in which power-sharing arrangements provide contending parties with enough power to block legislation, governments may find it difficult to enact policies necessary to address the pandemic. However, evidence suggests that power sharing is positively associated with the delivery of public goods, an outcome that is attributed to the checks such arrangements impose on executive power as well as their incorporation of groups formerly neglected or discriminated against by the government. The latter factor could be particularly important in efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus given recent evidence indicating that while politically marginalized ethnic groups are less trusting of government and thus less likely to follow a public health advisory, groups that have been historically represented in government are more likely comply with such directives.
Another factor worth considering is whether power-sharing governments prove less susceptible to the slide into authoritarianism that a number of governments are currently experiencing as they use the pandemic to accumulate new powers. While power-sharing arrangements have been found to help build the rule of law and facilitate the construction of minimalist democracy in countries emerging from civil war, it remains to be seen whether they yield the same outcomes – or enable governments to hold on to progress made in these areas – in the midst of what is both a domestic and a global crisis.
Power-sharing arrangements have begun to appear on the global stage again. Whether or not they will become as prevalent as they were several years ago is an open question. The answer may depend, in no small measure, on whether or not the governments that have adopted them prove more resilient and better able to respond to the current pandemic than countries that have opted for other means of managing conflicts and crises.
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