NATIONAL DIALOGUES are negotiating mechanisms intended to expand participation in political transitions beyond the political and military elites. Their ambition is to move away from elite-level deal making by allowing diverse interests to influence the transitional negotiations. At the same time, national dialogues are not purely democratic processes: their participants are not chosen through direct one-man-one-vote elections, but are either appointed or selected by caucus-type constituencies that are smaller than the total population of voting age. Also, in their deliberations, national dialogue processes do not usually follow parliamentary or other established procedures but design their own debating and decision-making rules. National dialogues, then, try to escape the elitism of peace negotiations, but do not provide for a full-fledged democratic process to carry out that negotiation.
National dialogue processes have taken place in a number of countries going through political transitions and have influenced the outcomes of these transitions. Several West African countries held national conferences in the early 1990s as they moved from authoritarian to democratic governments (Benin, Togo, Congo Brazzaville, Niger, Mali and Zaire, among others). Following the 2003 Bonn Agreement, the Emergency and Constitutional Loya Jirgas were held in Afghanistan and contributed to the design of the transitional process. Finally, the National Dialogue Conference was launched in Yemen in March 2013 as part of the November 2011 Implementation Mechanism of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, which put in place a two-year transitional process in an effort to end the conflict in the country. These processes have differed in their legal status and mandate, their independence from the government, their inclusiveness, and the role they played in the transition.
There are three inherent tensions in designing national dialogue processes, which influence their legitimacy and effectiveness:
1. The size and composition of national dialogues: how large should national dialogues be? How wide should the inclusion net be cast? What constituencies need to be included and how should their representatives be selected?
2. The power and mandate of national dialogues: what is their relationship to existing state institutions like parliaments and governments? What are their decision-making powers?
3. The question of the independence of national dialogues: should the decisions of national dialogues be ratified by existing institutions or should their decisions be final? In transitional periods, unelected interim governments are often in power and may lack legitimacy in the eyes of the public compared to large and inclusive national dialogues. In other cases, incumbent governments which may have been elected through processes of questionable fairness may also suffer from the same legitimacy deficit. It therefore sometimes proves difficult for governments to claim legitimate control over national dialogue processes.
These tensions are usually resolved through negotiations among the key political actors regarding the dialogue’s powers and role in the transition. These negotiations are by definition messy and difficult, and do not follow a clearly defined path. Often, key political actors agree on a set of principles that should govern the transition, which they then seek to consolidate through an inclusive and participatory national dialogue. In other cases, the above tensions are resolved during the dialogue process itself, while yet in others they lead to the failure of the dialogue.
The negotiation of the dialogue’s mandate can be crucial to its success. If certain powerful constituencies are excluded from the negotiations on the transitional process and the role of the dialogue in that process, they may refuse to participate in the dialogue. This was the case of the Iraqi National Conference of 15–18 August 2004.
given to them. The goal of the paper is to inform practitioners who are engaged in designing and preparing national dialogues to always bear in mind that political transitions are unique events and that transferring lessons across countries is a difficult enterprise. The paper focuses on countries where national dialogues played a key role in influencing decision-making during political transitions or were mandated to play such a role but ultimately failed. It does not discuss sub-national dialogue efforts or dialogues which were not mandated to influence the shape of the transition.
2. The mandate of national dialogue processes
National dialogue processes have had a variety of mandates in transitional settings. In some cases, they kick-started political transitions: they appointed transitional governments, transitional constitutions and constituent assemblies. In other cases, they have themselves drafted constitutions while still in other cases they have drafted constitutional principles which were handed over to a constitution drafting body. In yet other cases, national dialogues have simply, but usefully, engaged all actors in a political process and designed future negotiation processes which took binding decisions. In these latter cases, the goal of the dialogue was to build enough trust and to design the process through which the country might resolve some of its most contentious problems.
Reaching an inclusive agreement on the mandate of the dialogue through negotiations among all key stakeholders is not simple. In some cases, the mandate is negotiated among leaders representing the parties to a conflict and is included in a peace agreement (as for example in Afghanistan and Yemen), while in other cases it is agreed upon by relatively inclusive committees tasked to prepare dialogues to build national consensus on key issues (as for example in a number of West African countries as for example in Togo and Congo Brazzaville). In some cases, the mandate is negotiated among a narrow set of elites but the dialogue itself expands participation to a wider set of political actors (as for example in Yemen). In other cases, however, as for example in Iraq, it proves difficult to expand political participation when the mandate of the dialogue is disputed. In some cases, the agreed upon mandate is respected by the national dialogue although it continues to be interpreted as the dialogue progresses (Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq). In other cases, the mandate evolves during the dialogue, as it happened in the West African national conferences some of which declared themselves sovereign and overthrew existing regimes. As will be discussed later, these latter cases can be destabilising as the incumbent regime may decide to not accept the decisions of the dialogue and may resort to violence.
In general, national dialogues benefit from a clear, manageable mandate and a well-defined relationship to ongoing political processes which is negotiated prior to the commencement of the dialogue. What is the dialogue trying to accomplish, what powers does it have and how does it relate to existing institutions? Clear answers to these questions are crucial for several reasons. First, it is easier to mobilise the public and civil society around a dialogue process which has a clear mandate and is expected to reach concrete outputs. In cases where a dialogue process does not have a clear goal, it is unlikely that society will become interested in it, seek to influence it and try to participate in it. Citizens and civil society groups decide to invest their time in a dialogue process which they perceive as worthwhile because it is mandated to reach important outputs.
Second, the participants of the dialogue are more likely to work productively when they understand the goal toward which they are working. Unclear mandates can cause confusion during a dialogue. Dialogue participants may lose focus and direction if they can easily lose sight of the goal of their work. Also, when the goal is unclear, disputes regarding the goal itself
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