Preventing Electoral Violence: Greater Awareness, but Still Falling Short

March 17, 2015
Jonas Claes

The promotion of democracy and the prevention of election violence (PEV) in countries at risk of conflict is a well-established multibillion dollar industry that sends peacebuilding practitioners across the globe. The logic behind PEV is straightforward: After analyzing the sources of risk in countries with upcoming elections, one applies the appropriate set of policy instruments to address the frustrations, financial incentives, and fears of those considering violence as a means to win, disrupt, or protest the vote. At the same time, local capacities are strengthened to protect vulnerable citizens and communities. While many local, regional, and international organizations are dedicated to this cause, utilizing a wide assortment of tools, the effectiveness of PEV efforts remains unclear. In an effort to define the state of the art in election violence prevention, this introduction will reflect on the development, practice, and impact of this firmly established peacebuilding field.

The Rise of Election Violence Prevention

Elections can sow the seeds of good governance when adequately managed. At times, elections trigger widespread political violence because they can exacerbate tensions within fragile, conflict-prone, or oppressive societies. International organizations have recognized this risk since World War II, as reflected in their historically strong engagement in democratic support. The United Nations (UN) set the tone, administering elections when former colonies transitioned to independent status or as violent civil conflicts came to an end.

Following the Cold War, UN resolutions or peace agreements increasingly prescribed internationally supervised or verified elections as the formal closure of a violent conflict. Within countries previously marred by violent conflict, free and fair elections would present a common exit point to international donors or peace operations, indicating a level of democratic maturity that justifies a reduction in funds or staff. Until today, “voting is aggressively promoted by the international community,” notes Paul Staniland from the University of Chicago, “and heralded as a sign of legitimacy by elected governments.”1 In recent decades, international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), and the Carter Center, as well development agencies of the United States and United Kingdom or the UN Development Programme (UNDP), adopted a growing role in election monitoring and support. The practice of election support gradually transformed: From taking direct ownership over election administration and security, international actors now increasingly operate in support of independent election commissions, political parties, and local NGOs. The Organization of American States, the European Union, and other regional organizations created specialized units as well, dedicated to electoral assistance.

While the expansion of institutions addressing election violence has proceeded for nearly half a century, the prioritization of prevention is a more recent trend, resulting from two sequential dynamics: the revival of preventive action as an aspirational norm in the peacebuilding field in the 1990’s, and the growing characterization of elections as a process as opposed to an event.

Prevention as a growing norm in peacebuilding. The televised horrors of mass violence in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Balkans led to a broad push to conduct peacebuilding differently. An Agenda for Peace (1992) by UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali and the Carnegie Commission Report on Preventing Deadly Conflict (1997) furthered the realization that preventing violence before its eruption was not just a possibility but preferable to rapid response mechanisms and other reactive approaches. The momentum of prevention influenced both long-standing and modern peacebuilding practices, including mediation and efforts to counter violent extremism. For election support, the emphasis on prevention facilitated the creation of specialized early warning systems, recurring risk assessments, and a more timely provision of training and assistance. However, the commitment to prevention is slow to transform from an aspirational to an effective norm.

Elections as a Process. More recently, the realization has grown that election support goes beyond the archetypes of trained election officials and vote tabulation software on the day voters head to the polls. The levels of foreign presence and funding still peak towards election day, even though research by Scott Strauss and Charlie Taylor, presented in the USIP volume Voting in Fear, demonstrated that most violence occurs prior to the elections. A growing consensus among the leading players in election support—UNDP, NDI, IFES, The UK Department for Internation Development, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—has emerged around the “electoral cycle” as an organizing principle for programming. The risk of violence and the needs for institutional support is present before and after elections and even between election cycles.

Election Violence Prevention as a Field of Practice

Preventing election violence goes beyond the organization of free and fair elections. Peaceful elections are no guarantee for democratic quality, while free and fair elections are no guarantee for election security. The 2011 elections in Nigeria illustrate this paradox: While the democratic quality of the polls had vastly improved compared to past elections, the elections were the most violent in the country’s history.

The methods and tools to prevent election violence vary widely in terms of the implementing actor, timing, or scope. Early changes to electoral laws may be authorized domestically years before voters hit the polls to improve access to and fairness of the voting process. Preventive measures can be taken by local government authorities, as they carry the primary responsibility for the transparent and peaceful organization of elections. Political parties, local media, and domestic NGOs, such as youth organizations, may play a constructive role as well, as long as governing authorities allow them the space to operate. A well-trained and equipped police force may intimidate potential perpetrators on election day. The practice of election violence prevention also targets different groups and individuals, depending on risk assessments in particular contexts. Prevention models can be categorized in terms of the segments of the population they target, which may be ordinary citizens, political elites, or likely perpetrators.

Many prevalent techniques are targeted at citizens, through peace messaging, voter education, and voter consultations. These approaches are based on the assumption that a shift in the attitude and behavior of the general electorate helps mitigate the risk of violence. Through peace messaging, ordinary citizens are encouraged to speak out against violence and are alerted to the human, financial, and development cost of violence. The messaging occurs through various media, including sports events, art, or advertisements, and on a variety of communication platforms. Voter education mitigates the risk of violence by educating the electorate on democratic procedures and responsibilities, empowering vulnerable communities, and enhancing the legitimacy and transparency of the voting process. Voter consultations are based on the assumption that participatory political platforms allow voters to articulate their grievances and concerns, enhance their perceived inclusiveness, and shape the policy priorities of the political elite.

The role and responsibility of the political elite in inciting and organizing election violence cannot be underestimated, since violence commonly results from an incumbent’s fear of losing power in the face of an uncertain election outcome. An independent electoral management body (EMB) empowered to enforce election guidelines in a consistent and nonpartisan manner can help deter or mitigate violence. An EMB may sanction parties and candidates who see violence as a viable instrument, incentivize codes of conduct, and implement a transparent registration and result verification protocol. As a complement to this domestic approach, international diplomats can help mobilize local leaders for peace and resolve disputes between leading contenders. Through preventive diplomacy, senior diplomats can apply pressure or persuasion, alerting potential spoilers about the consequences of incitement and the benefits of legal dispute resolution.

Finally, security sector engagement and youth programs illustrate policy approaches informed by the anticipated perpetrator of the violence. A well-trained and equipped police force and military presents an important domestic guarantee for election security, as long as they prioritize the protection of the electorate over elite interests and display professional conduct. Whether the threats originate from violent riots, insurgent attacks, or targeted assassinations, police are responsible for the protection of election materials and stakeholders, including candidates, voters, or poll workers. Police training can also help ensure security forces are part of the solution instead of the problem, as police abuse, intimidation, or repression present common types of election violence. Targeted education or employment programs may similarly reduce the risk of election violence, turning common perpetrators of violence into stakeholders in the economy and political system. Through employment programs, or direct engagement in the election process as a volunteer, monitor, or even a candidate, youth obtain a stake in the peaceful conduct of elections.

The assumptions regarding the potential outcome of these instruments are plausible as long as they are implemented according to best practice and follow a strategic risk assessment that establishes either citizens, elites, or violent agents as part of the problem or the solution. For example, the likely impact of citizen-oriented techniques on the risk of violence is questionable in cases in which well-organized insurgents are the sole perpetrators of electoral violence. Building up the material capacity of the security sector is only advisable in cases in which a well-trained and equipped police force presents a domestic guarantee for election security rather than a tool of manipulation in the hands of an authoritarian incumbent.

Identifying the will and capacity to base preventive interventions on rigorous and iterative assessments, starting at least eighteen months before election day, present just one of many challenges to enhance effectiveness. While rapidly expanding, our knowledge of the drivers and triggers increasing the risk of election violence remains imperfect, placing our prevention practice on a shaky knowledge base to begin with. At the same time, given the dominant focus on neutralizing short-term triggers of anticipated violence, initiatives to prevent electoral violence commonly fail to address the underlying motivations of violent political conflict.

Measuring and Improving Impact

Elections present an opportunity for preventive peacebuilding because of their potential role as a trigger of violence. Since the date of the poll is usually known well in advance, domestic and international peacebuilders are well-equipped to develop programming in a timely fashion. Thanks to a growing body of applied research, these practitioners are increasingly aware of the likely location, perpetrators, and motivations of election violence. In theory, this should allow election specialists to anticipate risk more accurately and better prioritize countries that would benefit from interventions. But the ability of preventive practice to achieve its intended outcome merits further investigation. To evaluate the impact of preventive programming, peacebuilders must look beyond the presence or absence of election violence in the aftermath. A more appropriate indicator is a measurable decline in the structural risk identified as part of the assessment, prior to the preventive intervention.

The 2013 presidential elections in Kenya powerfully illustrate the importance of selecting the appropriate indicators for impact evaluation. Conventional wisdom among international observers indicated that the recent Kenyan elections presented a ‘prevention success,’ since the widespread violence of 2007–08 had not been repeated. However, a USIP study, “Elections and Violent Conflict in Kenya: Making Prevention Stick,” revealed that ordinary Kenyans disagreed with the optimistic assessment that the 2013 presidential elections had been peaceful. Instead, they described “palpable tension, fear, and anxiety” and reported localized violence across the country. The result of this “negative peace,” as locals described it, was not the result of constructive peacebuilding but of conflict suppressing factors, including the memory of the recent violence and the fear of its return. There is a widespread expectation that violent conflict could erupt in Kenya during the next elections, if not before, since the structural drivers of conflict, including land disputes, the lack of a solution for the internally displaced, and growing tensions following ethnic and religious profiling in the government’s shoot-to-kill counter-terrorism campaign, remain in place.

Unless we improve the metrics for evaluating preventive success and address the underlying drivers of conflict, elections will remain a flashpoint for violence and tension, requiring the peacebuilding community to repeat its efforts each and every election cycle.

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