Political parties are the most important political organization in most societies, and especially in electoral democracies. Parties are specialists in civilian public service delivery, and they can profoundly aid the building or maintenance of civil peace in societies threatened by armed conflict. Parties can perform a positive function in ending or containing conflict, and they can play a constructive role in providing the policies and infrastructure that societies need to have in order to avoid strife or lawlessness. Peace-building initiatives often favor political parties as critical institutions in civilian development efforts.
But while political parties are ubiquitous and indispensable parts of any democratic order, they are at the same time, as Thomas Carothers notes, “the least respected or trusted of any public institution.” This tension seems especially acute in many of the world’s least stable societies. And parties do not always build peace. In some circumstances, parties may instead foster or exacerbate civil conflict. This may happen deliberately or more accidentally. Parties may exacerbate conflict if they are too closely tied to previously warring parties, if the benefits to their leaders from conflict outweigh the benefits of peace, or perhaps due to misperceptions or as an unintended consequence of strategies designed to build electoral support.
Yet, we have little systematic knowledge of the conditions under which parties reduce or exacerbate civil conflict.
These topics will be the main theme of a workshop that will take place at PRIO August 23-24, 2010. This workshop will in general address the implications of party politics for civil peace.