Starting Off on the Wrong Foot: Elite Influences in Multi-Ethnic Democratization Settings

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Elite manipulation theories, particularly the idea of diversionary war, have played a substantial role in the analysis of ethnic civil wars. Some, as Gagnon (2004), argue that political elites have shaped the perceptions of their population to create the illusion of a threatening outside world. This, driven to the extreme, would then give rise to an ethnic security dilemma and potentially, civil war. Even if violence does not break out, divisive elite manipulation increases the likelihood of self-perpetuating injustices between members of ethnic groups. Snyder (2000) argues that democratizing multi-ethnic states face an extraordinarily high risk of such conflict.

During and shortly after democratization processes, when political leaders are most in need of popular backing, the temptation to seek the support of a fairly well defined ethnic group rather than that of the multi-ethnic demos that existed so far may be strong. Especially if group identities have been reified through institutionalization – as is frequently the case in multi-ethnic societies – ready-made social cleavages may be available for politicians to exploit. However, Brubaker (1998) convincingly argues that political leaders rarely have both the ability and ideal environment to manipulate identities for their own personal need that the theory of diversionary war suggests.

This paper provides an initial analysis of the first in a series of democratization cases in ethnically heterogeneous settings: the Burundian democratization process of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Based on news agency and local newspaper reports, this paper attempts to assess to what degree elites stimulate ethnic hostilities in their bid for political power and to what extend they react to credible already present in the population.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages37
Publication statusPublished - 12 Nov 2016

Publication series



  • democratisation
  • ethnicity
  • political elites
  • civil war

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