The Art of the Power Sharing Deal

By: Kara Woods

America has survived one of the most turbulent election cycles in our country’s memory. Many factors and events played into why this election cycle was so difficult, but in the end, our new president has been put into office and is moving forward. In recent years, America’s election cycle has not been the only one to suffer. Multiple countries have faced political violence on a massive scale when their elections fail and have turned to extra-electoral options to obtain peace. Kenya in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2008, and Afghanistan in 2014 all had elections that were so unacceptable to the people and the political parties that a compromise was negotiated after the ballots were in. This stopped the immediate violence and set up a government that granted power to both top political parties. This is known as a power sharing deal and has some interesting consequences for the countries that use them. Does a power-sharing deal resolve the conflict to everyone’s satisfaction, or merely delay it until the underlying problems can’t be ignored anymore, prolonging the conflicts?

First it is important to understand where the idea for a power-sharing agreement comes from. When an election fails there are limited options for resolving the distribution of power quickly to stop electoral violence. The options are: a qualified third party can call for a re-election; violence surges to give certain people power by force; or the political elites can meet and discuss acceptable alternatives and those individual elites are in charge of convincing their party members to accept their compromise and stop the violence.

Of these options, the first requires a strong independent third party that both running political parties recognize as having authority over them, usually an independent national court, but an outside organization like the U.N. or a regional organization like the African Union can sometimes fulfill the role if there is enough local trust in the organization to be fair. Unfortunately, in a society that has large scale electoral violence, there usually isn’t a strong independent judiciary that can make this call, and international organizations either decline to get involved or are seen as biased, discrediting their help. The second option isn’t favored because hostile take-overs end up with more people dead and result in martial rule. The last option, the political elites creating a power-sharing agreement, has become popular in comparison over recent years.

What the power sharing deal actually looks like tends to be unique to the country’s individual situation. In Kenya in 2007, the power sharing deal that made this solution popular, the answer was to create more political positions so the political elite of both parties had power.[1] This made sense for Kenya, where each election cycle had the politically powerful re-drawing alliances and goals, as opposed to the stable political parties we are used to here in the US.[2] Political candidates in Kenya tend to be less devoted to a specific set of ideological platforms, and more devoted to the specific needs of the ethnic group supporting them as candidate.[3] This history of changing alliances made it easier for the political elites to work together to create their solution of expanding the house and requiring diversity in appointing people of both parties to government positions.[4]

Kenya’s 2011 election passed without major violence, but in 2015, the violence resurfaced as the incumbent took power again despite legitimate allegations of fraud, instigating political violence, and corruption.[5] These were the same issues of the 2007 disputed election, based along the same ethnic lines, tribalism, and feelings of powerlessness that the political elite were not able to address in their first power sharing deal.

In 2008 Zimbabwe tried a similar solution to Kenya’s 2007 election, though it had a very different political background. Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF party had never lost or shifted power, and their electoral violence came out of the ZANU-PF’s inability to handle a cholera epidemic, hyper-inflation, an economic recession, and corruption.[6] Zimbabwe’s politics have had a military aspect to it since the 1990’s, where political appointees are typically selected from those who were previously engaged in military service and martial patriotism became associated with the ZANU-PF’s political ideology.[7] These factors made the ZANU-PF much less willing to share power with the opposing political parties, and in 2008, they did so only after being ordered to by South Africa’s president, who had influence because South Africa was the country stabilizing Zimbabwe’s economy.[8] This is an example of a foreign actor acting as a third-party judge. The situation had the usual weaknesses of being unable to closely monitor the negotiations without stepping over Zimbabwe’s sovereignty and appearing biased. The power sharing agreement created was unable to function as ZANU-PF did not follow their promises and refused to turn over any political positions of significant power, aside from control of the treasury department, and the non-ZANU-PF political appointees were threatened, ignored, and harassed to the point of being unable to affect change contrary to ZANU-PF’s platforms.[9] This fate foreshadows the fate of any political party that attempts to win elections in Zimbabwe’s future, where even the power sharing agreement could not help them.   

Afghanistan in 2014, then again in 2019, had disputed elections that led to electoral violence and even two political parties trying to run governments simultaneously. Afghanistan’s situation is again unique from Zimbabwe and Kenya, as their elected government has always had the shadow of Taliban violence there to discourage people from voting at all.[10] In 2014, the two major political parties in a disputed election, under US encouragement, created a power sharing deal that tried to split the cabinet positions 50/50 across party lines and created an additional chief executive office for the opposing party.[11] This solution was so odious to the parties as they tried to govern contrary to their other half of the government, that when the elections failed again in 2019, they refused to share power the same way. In 2019, the non-incumbent party was instead given control over any possible peace negotiations with the Taliban and some key political positions.[12]

These case studies bring back the question of whether power sharing deals are a useful governing tool for resolving election disputes. As a positive, power sharing deals end the immediate electoral violence, force political opponents to negotiate with each other, and can quickly bring a government back into a functional state. Conversely, a power sharing deal does not always address the underlying issues that people had hoped a new elected executive would resolve. After a power sharing deal is enacted, electoral violence from a disputed election usually occurs within the following ten years.

A power sharing deal can seem ridiculous and impossible to an American audience. Despite the recent storming of the capitol, Americans typically take a change in political leadership with nothing stronger than verbal protests and messaging from the losing side, but still with overall faith in the electoral system. It was obvious to Thomas Jefferson in 1800 that there is a very good reason not to have your political opponent as your vice president, that having two different visions attempting to guide the executive branch is a bad idea, and we have followed that wisdom ever since. However, despite the apparent impossibility of it, in 1876 America made a deal to soothe possible violence in the wake of a presidential election. The election of 1876 provides a long-term case study of the effectiveness of a power sharing deal.

In the election of 1876, two sets of ballots were mailed to Congress from Florida, one republican, one democrat. Whichever set of ballots was counted would swing the election between republican Rutherford Hayes and democrat Samuel Tilden. A bipartisan electoral commission was set up to handle the 20 disputed votes, and among the political elite, a deal was created that would give Rutherford Hayes the presidency in return for ending Reconstruction in the South. Seeking stability in the recently re-unified country, the presidential candidates agreed. Union soldiers left the southern states, and Republicans took the presidency. America is still grappling with the effects of that decision today and the enduring racism it has left in our society.

The power sharing deal America enacted kept the country together. The Southern Democrats did not immediately gain executive power following their defeat. There is a strong possibility that Tilden would have removed the troops from the South anyway had he obtained the presidency. It is impossible to say what would have happened if Tilden had become president, or if the Republicans had taken the presidency without agreeing to removing Union soldiers enforcing Reconstruction efforts. We only know what did happen because of that power sharing deal. America turned a blind eye to the reimplementation of racist policies in the South and African Americans were subject to a hundred plus years of prejudice and persecution, and racism that continues to today.

Power sharing deals have a price. Unfortunately, the political elite who make the power sharing deals are not the ones that pay. Lives lost and disrupted by electoral violence are often the cost of not using a power sharing deal to resolve the immediate conflict, but because the underlying issues are not addressed, the conflict endures, affecting numerous generations down the line. The wisdom of continuing to use a power sharing deal as a resolution to a disputed election will have to be up to each country to decide, but hopefully countries will closely examine the history of the practice and seek a different path.


[1] Cheeseman, Power-sharing in comparative perspective : the dynamics of ‘unity government ’ in Kenya and Zimbabwe,48(2), J. of Modern African Studies, Cambridge University Press, 203, 205 (2010).

2 See Id.

[3]Id.  

[4] Id.

[5] Alastair Leithead, Kenya election: Kenyatta re-elected in disputed poll, BBC News, (Oct. 30, 2017), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-41807317

[6] Cheeseman, supra note 1, at 214.

[7] Id at 215.

[8] Micheal Bratton, Zimbabwe: Power-Sharing Deal Under Stress, Policy Brief, 1, 2, (Nov. 3, 2010). http://www.ciaonet.org.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/record/20281?search=1

[9] Id at 3.

[10] Susannah George, Afghan Presidential Election: What You Need to Know, Wash. Post, (Sept. 26, 2019). https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/elections-in-afghanistan-what-you-need-to-know/2019/09/25/9459dc32-df01-11e9-be7f-4cc85017c36f_story.html

[11] Agreement between the Two Campaign Teams Regarding the Structure of the National Unity Government, released in English on Sept. 21,2014, (Afg.) https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/resources/afghan-government-documents/the-government-of-national-unity-deal-full-text/.

[12] Rahim Faiez, Afghan President and Rival Announce Power-Sharing Agreement, ABC News, (May 17, 2020) https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/afghan-president-rival-announce-power-sharing-agreement-70728791.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: