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Nov 12, 2012 | Commentary

While Republicans may lament Mitt Romney’s loss in the recent American presidential elections, they will not take to the streets and begin shooting at Democrats – or at least not anytime soon.  Elsewhere in the world, however, political groups respond with violence to losses at the polls. These “Winner-takes-all” situations are a serious concern for security as they are one of the defining points between peace and violence.

“Winner takes all” (WTA) situations are situations that involve two or more stakeholders competing for the control of a political good, be it material or abstract.  These zero-sum situations are among the tensest situations between political groups. Different forms can be seen in political contests (i.e., elections and constitutional referendums), violent conflict, and negotiations.  When the risk of “losing” is present, such as continued or future marginalization due to a lack of legitimate political representation, individuals and groups will do whatever it takes to win. The motivation does not come from greed or kleptocracy but from the fear of losing the core values or survival of the political group. While most political contests are high stakes, WTA is a specific type of situation that may determine the difference between peace and violent conflict.

A recent report by The Global Commission on Elections, Democracy, and Security highlighted WTA as a flash point for violence. This echoes a key recommendation my co-authors and I made in Improving the Peace Process, a policy brief with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) that concentrated on the immaterial stakes in violent conflict and how these can be leveraged in a peace process.

I identify three factors critical in causing and reinforcing WTA: ideology and political leaders; political institutions; and the positive feedback effect of WTA. A fundamental root of WTA comes from ideologies and leaders. Ideologies often set practices, behaviours, and limits for politics. Political leaders may guide the use of ideology in a strict and uncompromising manner, thus promoting and/or enforcing WTA. A second factor in WTA is institutions.  Elections are one institutional form of WTA, as they establish political control and often choose one interest over another. Constitutions can also engrain WTA, as they carry immense political weight and are not easily revised. Lastly, WTA causes a reinforcing mentality. Suggesting alternatives to “winning” becomes the same as surrender – an unacceptable option. WTA situations are self-enforcing and thus difficult to break.

While WTA can be hard to break, there are some ways to find solutions. The first critical step is for political groups to focus and define their stakes. Many conflicts in the past have perpetuated due to proximate issues – clarifying the core disagreement is critical to construct solutions. In many cases, especially in conflicts over immaterial goods (e.g., cultural identities), stakes are actually non-exclusive. This allows for political arrangements that can maintain the priorities of multiple stakeholders.

A key example of WTA met with a solution is the Northern Irish Troubles of the 20thCentury. Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants/Unionists wanted their respective identities to be the national identity (i.e., to remain British or to join the Republic of Ireland). In the 1990s, negotiating the national identity of individuals was the key issue. The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement guaranteed that all residents of the disputed territory would be allowed to choose their citizenship (i.e., Irish, Northern Irish, or British) and the privileges thereof, no matter the constitutional arrangement. In this manner negotiators provided the political goods that each group desired, without prioritizing one group over the other.

WTA is a dangerous issue in politics, but one that can be overcome. Taking an approach that recognizes the core disagreement and the danger of WTA politics may help in providing breakthroughs in deeply entrenched and seemingly intractable conflicts.  Institutional experimentation and open political dialogue help facilitate unique and novel solutions that move past “Winner Takes All” politics.


Isaac Caverhill-Godkewitsch is a Research and Communications Intern at the Security Governance Group.