Tilting at windmills or whipping up a storm? Elites and ethno-nationalist conflict during democratisation

Lutz Krebs


How much influence do political leaders have on the likelihood of ethnic civil war? Two opposing theoretical positions exist: elite manipulation theorists argue that leaders incite ethno-nationalism to secure their hold on power (Snyder 2000, Gagnon 2004). However, political leaders rarely have both the ability and the ideal environment to manipulate identities (Brubaker 1998). Instead, structural forces like ethnic security dilemmas could be driving forces behind conflict onset (Posen 1993), leaving elites virtually without influence on the probability of civil-war onset. This study uses large-N regressions to test both theories and a hybrid alternative focussing on two problems inherent to democratisation settings: the need to settle the demos question and ongoing competition between incumbent and challenging political leaders. Results confirm that ongoing democratisation phases, the prior existence of security worries caused by politicised ethnic divisions, and factors threatening incumbents have a significant positive influence on the risk of civil war.

Keywords: democratisation, ethno-nationalism, political elites, civil war

JEL Classification: N40