Making peace in Colombia: Northern Irish lessons

The d’Hondt executive does not operate like the winner-take-all mechanism of most majoritarian systems.

Neophytos Loizides Luis Fernando Medina
11 September 2013

Colombia’s peace process has reached an important milestone despite recent setbacks. The lessons from other post-conflict societies such as Northern Ireland, South Africa and Bosnia confronting comparable challenges to those facing Colombians today could also be helpful in restoring public confidence for the settlement.

Northern Ireland offers an interesting innovation that may be well worth considering in the current negotiations in Colombia: the d’Hondt executive. The idea is, simply, to create a mechanism that guarantees automatic participation of all the different political groups in the cabinet, with a share proportional to their electoral results.

The d’Hondt executive does not operate like the winner-take-all mechanism of most majoritarian systems. Instead, it gives a share in decision-making and responsibility to all groups in the conflict. The d’Hondt executive is the most democratic form of power-sharing as no political party is assured a share in power unless it obtains electoral support at the polls: the better they do that, the more they will be rewarded with a larger share. First, this incentivizes political parties to support the settlement - a critical issue for Colombia currently as public opinion has begun to oppose the government’s concessions to the rebels. Secondly, it allows actors to focus exclusively on politics as the only game in town. Once in power the incentives to use violence diminish as the Northern Ireland experience again clearly suggests following the adoption of the d’Hondt.

The idea is not entirely novel in the Colombian context. The National Front was a consociation that gave the two major parties equal shares in the cabinet but not according to their democratic mandate, thus lacking long-term legitimation. Also, in the early 1990s the Gaviria Administration rewarded the strong showing of the demobilized guerrilla M-19 at the polls by giving it the Ministry of Health. The D’Hondt executive would be, in essence, a formalization of Gaviria’s precedent, one that would not go all the way to adopting the non-proportional formula of the National Front. The d’Hondt executive in Northern Ireland has proven to be a mechanism that gives incentives for bridge-building across political groups, overcoming situations of extreme polarization.

Parties would still need to obtain the requisite electoral strength, and within the cabinet majority decisions will be made with reference to implementing the future peace agreement. This will allow all kinds of positive synergies to develop. There is little doubt that the only way in which the FARC can fully re-enter the political system is if they can build bridges with other sectors of society. The d’Hondt executive would provide the incentives to do so and a clear system of rewards if they succeed.

At the same time, the most obvious complication is that this may require a move away from the presidentialism that has so marked Colombia’s political system. But there is no need to go all the way to a parliamentary system. Rather, reforms could place the country along the path to a semi-parliamentary regime, akin to, say, France. Moreover, the president could be primarily in charge of breaking deadlocks as and when they arise. In other words, he or she could be seen as an arbiter among political parties rather than an additional veto player in preventing necessary reforms.

Colombia will need those alternative options in negotiating a future peace agreement. Given the nature of the post-conflict situation, such options will be needed in the context of a sustained effort directed not only at legislating changes in the next few months but also implementing and sustaining them through for several years. Inevitably, the peace process will require profound constitutional changes, some of which seem initially at odds with Colombia’s current political system. But they could be highly beneficial for all sides in the long-term.


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