The Transition of Militant Organisations to Political Partieson 23 September 2014
By Benjamin Acosta
Just as non-violent political parties, militant organisations like the Islamic State (previously the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL), the Free Syrian Army, Boko Haram, and the Taliban endure in order to achieve outcome goals. The contemporary era contains numerous militant organisations that pursue such outcome goals as self-determination, regime change, or social revolution. When formal political institutions provide few opportunities to achieve these goals, political groups often resort to violent alternatives, mobilizing supporters for a collective cause while seeking to establish a credible threat against adversaries. As Carl von Clausewitz asserted long ago: “war is [simply a] continuation of [politics] with other means.”
Nevertheless, over time militant organisations sometimes make the transition to political parties. After lengthy periods of devotion solely to armed conflict, Palestinian Fatah, El Salvadoran Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación (FMLN), Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), to list just a few, transitioned. But why—and how—do militant organisations adopt party politics? In the face of military stalemate or a comparable circumstance that exposes the productive limits of political violence, many militant organizations seek new means to advance their core goals. Simply recognizing the potential utility of transitioning to the party format though does not equal an ability to transition successfully. Most militant organisations remain incapable of transitioning due to two common constraints: (1) the base constituency’s preference for violence and (2) credibility deficiencies vis-à-vis the adversary.
Indeed, these two factors tend to preclude militants from adopting non-violent strategies from the onset of their campaigns. Until Palestinian organizations conducted numerous large-scale terror and guerrilla attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets in the 1960s and 1970s, Israel paid little attention to Palestinian demands. As the case demonstrates, militancy may offer a collective a voice that otherwise goes ignored, generating a preference and base of support for organisations willing to use violence. Yet, the very organizational threat that made Palestinian militants credible and “worthy” adversaries of Israel degraded the credibility of those same organisations to commit to negotiations, agreements, and other developments that lead to participation in party politics. As Max Abrahms describes “the credibility paradox”—when oppositions employ violence, they create a new challenge as “the very escalatory acts that add credibility to a [militant organisation’s] threat can subtract credibility from [its pledge to end the threatening act if the target makes satisfactory concessions].” As such, militant transition to party politics first involves overcoming the external credibility problem and the internal preference for violence.
The relationship between state supporters and militant organizations offers a potential remedy to credibility deficiencies. As organisations regularly give up some autonomy in return for sponsorship, state supporters can make militants accountable and more credible to commit to agreements. For their own interests, sponsors might encourage or broker initiatives that involve transition, channeling militants to pursue (shared) goals through alternative means. Once an organization establishes a threat credible and draws the adversary into a stalemate, then a sponsor’s imparted credibility (to end the threat) can assist the organization in trading its use of violence for concessions. With the support and brokerage of the United States, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah—the leading faction within the Palestinian Liberation Organization—assured Israel of its sincerity to transition. Operating from pertinent positions of legitimacy and power, state supporters can “vouch” for militants and assure target states that the organisation in question will credibly commit to transition—though usually in exchange for the target making concessions to the militant organisation. In Fatah’s case, in exchange for transitioning, the U.S. persuaded Israel to agree to the Palestinian Authority’s establishment, granting Palestinians a degree of autonomy.
Importantly, constituents stand at the center of organisational survival, and a militant organisation therefore requires constituent support to transition to a political party. By transitioning, organisations can attract new domestic and external supporters. But, the greatest downside may come in the form of a loss of base support, as constituents might view transition as a betrayal. As losing its base could result in rapidly going defunct or performing poorly once taking part in elections, it serves an organisation to transition only if it can preserve the support of its base. For constituents that deem party politics “corrupt,” “foreign,” or against the interests of an ongoing military campaign, organisations necessarily demonstrate that adopting party politics marks the right move to advance collective goals. Convincing core constituents to relinquish the preference for violence and back transition normally entails the organisation achieving some success and substantiating that the level of achievement attained marks the productive limits of political violence. Base supporters require assurance that their representative has not surrendered the cause and that a new direction in organizational means does not represent an abdication of collective ends.
The phenomenon of militant transition carries a fairly opaque paradox: the chief incentive for an organisation to transition rests in achieving its outcome goal, yet outcome-goal achievement remains an essential facilitator of transition as it helps organizations persuade their constituents to trade violence for party politics. As John Aldrich recognizes, political actors establish parties as a “[new] means to achieve [existing goals].” When militant organisations accomplish their goals outright—like organizations that achieve military victories that topple adversarial regimes—the primary organisational incentive to transition evaporates. In contrast, achieving some success, though remaining outmatched or at parity with their adversaries or rivals, directs organisations to transition in efforts to accomplish the remainder of their outcome goals.
I recently analysed 406 organisations and found strong evidence that partial outcome-goal achievement and state supporters helps militant organisations overcome the obstacles preventing transition. Whereas the complete achievement of militant outcome goals absorbs the chief organisational incentive to transition, partial achievement of outcome goals fosters transition more than any other factor. The statistical results also show that once militant organisations begin running in elections, they generally do not abandon the practice. Further, in many cases, militant transition initiates the democratization process for a given society or identity group, as transitions frequently coincide with the establishment of an electoral system and various formal political institutions.
However, participation in party politics does not ensure an organisation’s permanent departure from violence. Recently, by fielding numerous candidates in Iraqi elections, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) showed signs of transitioning fully. Yet, with Mosul’s fall to the Islamic State, the Shi’a AAH once again picked up arms to aid the Iraqi government’s fight against Sunni jihadis. Notably, an entity can simultaneously operate as a militant organisation and political party. Hezbollah’s participation in elections throughout the 1990s and early 2000s did not preclude future militant actions (as exemplified by the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War), nor did its return to violence hinder further electoral participation (as evidenced in Lebanon’s 2009 elections). Hezbollah and Amal in Lebanon, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, RENAMO in Mozambique, and UNITA in Angola are a few organisations whose militant origins remain essential to their identities and platforms as political parties. Moreover, as the recent actions of Hamas, AAH, Hezbollah, and RENAMO illustrate, organisations may revert to militancy in order to preserve political gains.
Benjamin Acosta is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at The Ohio State University. You can read his recent article on militant transition to party politics in The Journal of Politics.
Image: Freedom House CC BY