Theses Doctoral

Democratization, Ethnic Minorities and the Politics of Self-Determination Reform

Saygili, Aslihan

Conventional wisdom portrays ethnic minorities as likely victims of democratization who often fall prey to nationalist aggression fueled by power-seeking elites. Yet, history is replete with newly democratic states that have not only avoided targeted violence against ethnic "others" but also sought to reconcile with aggrieved ethnic minorities through concessions over self-determination. In light of conventional wisdom, this picture is puzzling and raises two important questions: 1) Why is self-determination reform so frequently observed during democratization periods? 2) Why do some democratizing states accommodate minority demands for self-determination while others continue to neglect minority grievances, or worse, become a breeding ground for exclusionary nationalism and minority repression?

This dissertation is dedicated to addressing these questions. To answer the first question, I develop a novel theory of self-determination reform that explains the conditions under which government leaders develop both the capacity and incentives to introduce policies that devolve some degree of autonomy to separatist minorities. The theory pinpoints early democratization as a critical juncture where two key conditions necessary for self-determination reform - limited institutional constraints to rule and threats to elite survival - are most likely to be observed together. During early democratization, newly democratic governments are able to push forward radical policy changes without the meddling of institutionally empowered veto players, who typically gain more leverage as the democratic regime consolidates. Matching this capacity for reform are democratizers' strategic incentives to co-opt ethnic separatists. The source of these incentives, I argue, is the emergence of threats to elite survival during the early democratization period, which may be posed by a number of anti-democratic forces including the loyalists of the authoritarian regime and coup-plotting military factions. Amidst political instability, extending an olive branch to separatist minorities helps threatened democratizers strengthen their hand vis-a-vis imminent threats to their survival by containing separatist violence in the periphery and preventing tactical alliances between center-seeking and separatist rebel groups. In certain paths to democracy, democratizers also develop reputational incentives for self-determination reform, which helps establish democratic credentials through signaling a clean break with authoritarian practices.

I test my hypotheses using a mixed-method research design, combining statistical analyses of large-N data with a detailed case study of the Philippines-Moro relations during the country's transition to democracy in the mid-1980s. The quantitative findings confirm my hypotheses about the domestic political conditions that are most conducive to minority accommodation, as well as the relationship between democratization and self-determination reform. The Philippines chapter illustrates how strategic and reputational incentives for minority accommodation drive self-determination reform in early democracies, drawing on evidence from secondary sources and semi-structured interviews conducted during fieldwork in Manila. In later chapters, I turn to my second research question and explore the variation in transition outcomes for separatist minorities across democratizing states. The key insight is that conciliatory steps towards ethnic separatists is a likely outcome in all types of transition paths marked by political instability, with the exception of coerced incumbent-led transitions where the incumbent views electoral competition as the primary threat to its survival prospects. In addition to this exception, non-conciliatory outcomes may also be observed in top-down transitions led by powerful autocrats who democratize voluntarily and do so without allowing the transition process to generate any threats to their survival. Case studies of Spain, Nicaragua and Turkey introduced in the last chapter help probe the generalizability of the theory and illustrate how different transition paths shape democratizers' policies towards separatists disputes.

Altogether, my dissertation project presents a novel theory of self-determination reform, as well as undertaking the first systematic analysis of the conditions under which democratization paves the way for state-minority reconciliation. More broadly, the theory and findings also add nuance to current thinking about democratization and ethnic minorities, providing evidence that transition processes are not closely associated with minority victimization and ethnic violence as is commonly assumed.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Fortna, Virginia Page
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 1, 2019