Aslihan Saygili

PhD Candidate. Columbia University, Department of Political Science

Aslihan Saygili's Picture

Hi, I'm Aslihan!

I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Columbia University in New York City, specializing in International Relations and Comparative Politics. During Fall 2016, I was a Visiting Research Associate at the Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC) at Ateneo de Manila University, the Philippines.

My current research focuses on the effects of democratization on state policy towards historically marginalized ethnic minorities, with a focus on the self-determination movements of Southeast Asia. In my dissertation, I explore the conditions under which democratization paves the way for accommodative policies towards autonomy-seeking ethnic minorities. Another strand of my research examines the variation in post-transition ethnic violence across newly democratic states. My work combines semi-structured interviews and large-N, cross-national statistical analyses.

My dissertation research has been generously supported by the Earth Institute and the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. In other projects, I have examined democratic responses to terrorism and rebel use of terrorist tactics in the context of civil war.

I hold M.A. and M.Phil. in Political Science from Columbia University and a B.A., summa cum laude, in Political Science and International Relations from Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey.

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Research

Research Interests

Democratization and Ethnic Violence; Nationalism; Minority Politics; Separatism/Self-Determination; Terrorism in Civil Wars; Terrorism and Counter-terrorism

Dissertation

Conventional wisdom portrays ethnic minorities as likely victims of democratization as they can easily fall prey to elite strategies for amassing power in a politically turbulent period. Yet, history is replete with newly democratic regimes that have not only avoided targeted violence against ethnic “others” but also accommodated minority demands for self-determination in the aftermath of regime transition. In fact, accommodative policies towards separatist minorities are most commonly observed in states undergoing early democratization. In light of this key empirical insight, my dissertation addresses two research questions: 1) What makes democratization processes conducive to accommodative self-determination reform? 2) Why do some democratizing states adopt conciliatory policies towards autonomy-seekers while others continue to ignore minority grievances, or worse, become a breeding ground for exclusionary nationalism and ethnic violence?

I argue that democratization is a critical juncture where two key conditions for self-determination reform - limited institutional constraints on executive power and elite incentives for minority appeasement - are most likely to be observed together. Operating in a flexible institutional setting that allows for radical policy shifts, newly democratic governments adopt accommodative self-determination policies to prevent separatist violence from further destabilizing an already turbulent political environment (strategic incentives), as well as to establish democratic credentials through signaling a clean break with authoritarian practices (reputational incentives). Using panel data on government responses to self-determination movements between 1960 and 2005, I find a statistically significant relationship between democratization and accommodation of self-determination demands.

Recognizing the wide variation in state-minority relations across democratizing states, my theory also identifies the conditions under which accommodative self-determination reform is observed as an outcome of democratization. I argue that, for accommodation to occur, newly democratic leaders should either (i) feel vulnerable to threats to their survival, which produces strategic incentives to avoid costly separatist wars in the periphery, or (ii) come under popular pressures for radical democratic reform, which produce reputational incentives to avoid repressive minority policies reminiscent of authoritarian rule. I test these conditional hypotheses with a mixed-method strategy, combining large-N statistical analyses with in-depth case studies.

My case selection strategy is informed by the diverse-case method,, which allows me to achieve maximum variance along the two dimensions that my theory identifies as causally relevant to self-determination reform – 1) strategic and 2) reputational incentives. My first case study of state policy towards Moro and Cordillera minorities during the Philippines’ democratization is a case that helps illustrate both mechanisms at work. I draw on qualitative data from secondary sources and more than 30 semi-structured interviews with senior government and military officials, human rights activists, former constitutional commission members, rebel elites and conflict experts who closely witnessed the trajectory of state-minority relations during the country’s early democratization period under the Corazon Aquino administration (1986-1989). In subsequent chapters, I use three additional case studies - Indonesia, Spain and Turkey - that are diverse on the causal mechanisms and thereby help test my conditional hypotheses.

Altogether, my dissertation project presents a novel theory of self-determination reform, as well as undertaking the first systematic analysis of the conditions under which democratization paves the way for state-minority reconciliation. More broadly, my theory and findings also add nuance to current thinking about democratization and ethnic minorities, providing evidence that transition processes are not always associated with minority victimization as is currently assumed.

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Publications

Job Market Paper

“Democratization, Ethnic Minorities, and the Politics of Self-Determination Reform”

Conventional wisdom suggests that democratization processes make ethnic minorities vulnerable to nationalist violence fueled by power-driven elites. This view overlooks the fact that, historically, many emerging democracies introduced reforms that addressed minority grievances and accommodated demands for self-determination. I argue that democratization is a critical juncture where two key conditions for self-determination reform - limited institutional constraints on executive power and elite incentives for minority appeasement - are most likely to be observed in tandem. Operating in a flexible institutional setting that allows for radical policy shifts, newly democratic governments often adopt accommodative self-determination policies to prevent separatist violence from further destabilizing an already turbulent political environment (strategic incentives), as well as to establish democratic credentials through signaling a clean break with authoritarian practices (reputational incentives). Using cross-national data on state responses to self-determination bids, I show that the likelihood of minority accommodation is significantly higher in states that have recently embarked upon democratization. Further analyses also support conditional hypotheses about how minority accommodation is more likely in democratizing states where (i) newly elected leaders feel vulnerable to threats to their survival, which produces strategic incentives to avoid costly separatist wars in the periphery, or (ii) there exist mass pressures for democratic reform, which produce reputational incentives to avoid repressive minority policies reminiscent of authoritarian rule. To better illustrate how these incentives operate, I present an in-depth case study of the Philippine government's policies towards the Muslim Moro and Cordillera minorities during the country's democratization in the mid-1980s, drawing on more than 30 interviews with government and military officials, rebel elites and conflict experts. Altogether, the theory and findings add nuance to current thinking about democratization and ethnic minorities, providing evidence that transition processes are not always associated with minority victimization as is currently assumed.

Peer-Reviewed

"Concessions or Crackdown: How Regime Stability Shapes Democratic Responses to Hostage Taking Terrorism.” Forthcoming at the Journal of Conflict Resolution

A prominent view in the terrorism literature is that democracies make soft targets for terrorists due to their citizenry’s low tolerance for civilian casualties. This study tests this claim in the context of hostage taking terrorism, which is a unique form of violence that coerces the target state into negotiating over its citizens’ lives under public scrutiny. I argue that democratic accountability generates softer responses to hostage crises only in mature democracies, where leaders’ concern over being held accountable for the human costs of a no-concessions policy outweighs the reputational costs of conceding to terrorists’ demands. Using data on government responses to hostage incidents from 1978 to 2005, I find that regime type becomes a significant predictor of target concessions only at higher levels of regime stability. To test the accountability mechanism proposed by theory, I examine the effect of electoral cycles on target response; as expected, while nearing elections soften democratic responses to hostage crises, in general their positive effect on the likelihood of concessions is stronger in consolidated democracies.

Work in Progress

“Weapon of the Stronger: A Market Share Theory of Terrorism in Civil War.” Under Review. [with Renanah Miles and Laura Resnick-Samotin.]

How does the distribution of capabilities among rebel groups affect their use of terrorist tactics? We argue that the amount of civil wartime terrorism perpetrated by a rebel group depends on its “market share”—the group’s military capabilities assessed vis-à-vis other rebel groups in the same conflict. Market-dominant rebel groups have both the material capabilities to make proliferate and deadly use of terrorist attacks and the strategic incentives to do so as a means of maintaining their monopolistic position in the conflict. By highlighting the links between relative strength, competition, and tactics, we add nuance to the conventional wisdom that conflicts involving multiple rebel groups are inherently more prone to terrorism. Using data on 342 non-state actors involved in internal armed conflicts between 1970 and 2011, we find that rebel groups who militarily dominate the conflict market use terrorism more extensively. Controlling for rebel strength vis-à-vis the government, terrorism appears to be a “weapon of the market-dominant” among non-state actors involved in civil conflict. Our findings demonstrate the explanatory power of inter-rebel distribution of capabilities for predicting terrorism in civil war and make an important modification to outbidding studies in the terrorism literature.

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Teaching

Instructor, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, 2017

Teaching Assistant, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, 2015

Teaching Assistant, Columbia University, 2013-2018

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