Conflict management in democracies

Conflict management in democracies

Conflicts are a fact of life. They are inevitable between human beings, communities and states that have incompatible or opposing goals, needs, ideas, values, styles, interests and so on. Although the concept of “conflict” has negative connotations in daily usage, it, if managed properly, is the bedrock of creativity in any given society. In fact, without conflicting ideas coming together in an open and discursive environment, development as we know it would not be possible and stagnation sets in, leading to decay of societies. On the other hand, if managed effectively, conflicts can lead to development, change, invention and progress.

Beyond the management of conflicting environments, if it moves to a stage of irreconcilable demands and physical engagement instead of a clash of opposing views, then conflict resolution and post-conflict rehabilitation become important. Obviously, all these have much more meaning within and between democratic societies, where conflicting situations are usually resolved without resorting to violence.

There are various ways to handle different types of conflicts. The latter determines the first. Aiming first and foremost to limit the violence between involved parties, there are five distinct styles of conflict management according to K.W. Thomas and R.H. Kilmann: Competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating.

The most constructive approach to deal with any conflict is collaboration as it offers a win-win outcome. The time constraint is the main obstacle as it needs serious planning and involves all the conflicting parties. Although difficult to use in emergencies, it fits most to the democratic culture with its features of plurality and participation. In contrast, avoiding is the least useful style in the long run as it essentially means running away from the problem or ignoring it.

Accommodating helps to preserve future relations among the conflicting parties as one party accepts its fault and tries to cooperate with the other. Although the conflicting problem remains, parties postpone its solution to a more opportune time. The opposite of this is competing with its win-lose outcome. In this zero-sum game environment, one party forces its goals at the expense of other party. It can be useful in emergency situations where decisive and urgent action is needed and where one party could, by brute force, overcome the will of the opposing party. Finally, compromising covers the middle ground between these two opposing styles, as it allows partial satisfaction of both parties.

Conflict management in democratic societies is a difficult and complicated process, requiring multi-level understanding and cognitive depth from the managers. Yet, democracies are equipped with various mechanisms to tackle conflicts without resorting to violence. In fact, this is one of the distinctive characteristics of mature democracies.

Although there are various definitions for democracy, one of the most widely accepted definitions, put forward by the Democracy Index, includes “free and fair elections and civil liberties” as necessary minimums, and highlights “transparent and efficient government, adequate political participation and a supportive democratic culture” as sufficient conditions for a full and consolidated democracy.

Thus, conflicting views, cultures, and ideologies are considered the wealth of healthy democracies. Even when a gap exists between the government and the public, democracies can always find a way to collaborate. Encouraging political participation of individuals, parties, civil society initiatives and other actors at local, regional and national levels, and creating a countrywide pluralistic environment helps any aspiring democracy to mature and manage conflicts without recourse to violence.