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Decentralization: Fueling the Fire or Dampening the Flames of Ethnic Conflict and Secessionism?

  • Dawn Brancati (a1)

Political decentralization is widely believed to reduce ethnic conflict and secessionism in the world today. Yet decentralization is more successful in reducing conflict and secessionism in some countries than in others. In this article, I explore why this difference occurs. I demonstrate using a statistical analysis of thirty democracies from 1985 to 2000 that decentralization may decrease ethnic conflict and secessionism directly by bringing the government closer to the people and increasing opportunities to participate in government, but that decentralization increases ethnic conflict and secessionism indirectly by encouraging the growth of regional parties. Regional parties increase ethnic conflict and secessionism by reinforcing ethnic and regional identities, producing legislation that favors certain groups over others, and mobilizing groups to engage in ethnic conflict and secessionism.Earlier versions of this article were presented at Harvard University and the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton University. The author would like to thank Sandra Alfonso-Leon, James Alt, Micah Altman, Barry Friedman, Shigeo Hirano, Simon Hug, Gary King, Rose Rozaghian, Tulia Falleti, and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments.

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