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With elections coming up next year in Liberia and Kenya, the time for early and sustained efforts to prevent clashes is now. Forthcoming USIP research shows that domestic institutions hold the key: election commissions, the police and, above all, political leaders. Any international support to those institutions and leaders must now move from plans to action in order to achieve any desired impact amid rising tensions.

Supporters of Raila Odinga, Kenya's prime minister and a presidential candidate, stage a protest outside the Supreme Court in Nairobi, Kenya, March 30, 2013. The court announced Saturday that the March presidential election results are valid and that Uhuru Kenyatta has won.
Supporters of Odinga, Kenya's then-prime minister and a presidential candidate, stage a protest outside the Supreme Court in 2013, after the justices said the election results were valid and Kenyatta won. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Tyler Hicks

When elections are held in fragile democracies with a history of violence, international officials generally pay close attention. During his visit to Nairobi on Aug. 22, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned that “a peaceful credible election is a critical step in consolidating Kenya's democracy.” Kerry committed $25 million to support civic education, encourage the participation of women and strengthen electoral dispute resolution, as the country prepares for balloting scheduled August 2017.

“Both in Liberia and Kenya, security force operations may not guarantee election security, instead becoming part of the problem.”

A few weeks earlier, a U.S. Democratic congressional delegation visited the Liberian capital Monrovia as that country looks toward elections in October 2017. It was led by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representatives Karen Bass of California and Carolyn Maloney of New York. Amid a withdrawal of the international military and police that make up the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL), and the conclusion of a U.S. mission mentoring and advising the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), the delegation stressed the importance of continued U.S. support in consolidating the country’s democratic gains.

Foreign government representatives such as lawmakers or special envoys commonly conduct some form of preventive diplomacy in the run-up to tense electoral contests in transitional countries. But does it make a difference? 

Diplomacy operates through persuasion or coercion, by applying stature and charisma to resolve disputes, or by threatening sanctions in the case of violence. International diplomacy demonstrated its promise in election-violence prevention by bringing the riots and ethnic killings following Kenya’s disputed 2007 balloting to a halt. After a full month of widespread violence, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan led a mediation effort that produced a power-sharing agreement.

But diplomatic success is not guaranteed. Unlike several other preventive practices, like election monitoring or sound planning and engagement by the country’s police force, diplomacy does not correspond with reduced levels of election violence, according to USIP’s research. The poor performance results from its common use as a reactive crisis management tool, when violence is imminent or already ongoing. Quite rarely is diplomacy truly preventive by anticipating risk well ahead of election day.

In any case, the most effective players in preventing election-related violence are not based in New York, Brussels or Washington D.C. The essential work of election-violence prevention starts at home, with election commissions, security forces and other domestic authorities. The quality and scope of their efforts determine whether campaigns turn violent and whether results are respected.

Election Administration Gaps

In Liberia, the National Election Commission (NEC) collaborates closely with the U.N. Development Programme, which provides technical support and funding along with the European Union on work such as voter registration and accrediting civil society organizations to conduct civic education. A first USIP assessment in-country indicated that the commission is widely perceived as competent and credible, and reaches beyond its technical mandate by contributing to civic education and hosting weekly Inter-Party Consultative Committee meetings. While the plans are in place to realize peaceful elections, significant budgets gaps seem inevitable after the country’s Ebola crisis, and may limit the ability of the NEC to implement its mandate.

In Kenya, on the other hand, the structures primarily responsible for the August 2017 elections remain in disarray. Recent months were particularly tense, with violent protest in several major cities and growing demands to disband the election commission. The two main coalition movements, CORD and Jubilee, joined up in a committee to determine the fate of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. The resulting report proposed several electoral reforms, but would also grant immunity to the current commissioners.

In principle, the dialogue process between the coalitions presents a positive development, as the main competitors will enter the race with enhanced trust in the legal framework. But deep frustration about past incompetence and fraud remains; several civil society organizations, opposition members and faith-based organizations feel the process missed an opportunity for bolder reform and for bringing the embattled commissioners to justice. Aside from the quality of the proposals, any reform effort in an election year will surely trigger anxiety, and it remains to be seen whether proposed improvements can be implemented in time.

Planning for Security

A country’s security forces also are pivotal. In Liberia, the elections will take place in the midst of a gradual transition of security responsibilities from UNMIL to the Liberian National Police, even as funding for election security is expected to run drastically short. Initially mandated to monitor a ceasefire agreement after a long and bloody civil war, UNMIL played a lead role in securing the 2005—and to a lesser extent the 2011—presidential elections. The Liberian National Police and Ministry of Justice have emphasized prevention in their election security plan and assessments, reaching out to key stakeholders, like youth party leaders. But vast capacity gaps remain, and the discipline of security forces will certainly be put to the test when faced with demonstrations or riots in Monrovia and some of the voter-rich counties considered most at risk.

The situation in Kenya is similarly worrisome. Concerns are rising about the excessive use of force when security forces face large protests. The police reforms guided by the national police service have not been fully realized, and a proposed amendment on the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) increases the chance of military action in case violence erupts during or after the 2017 elections. Both in Liberia and Kenya, security force operations may not guarantee election security, instead becoming part of the problem.

Political Players Setting the Tone

Political incumbents and opposition members often set the mood during the campaign period, and after elections results are announced. In Liberia, the tone of the pre-campaign period has so far been harsh, as politicians across the aisle regularly exchange sharp accusations. Cases of fraud periodically trigger violent demonstrations in the capital, and the opposition is determined to claim power after consecutive contested losses.

The uncertainty surrounding Liberia’s democratic transition, with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf slated to leave office as she reaches the end of her two terms, already creates anxiety. Tensions will likely reach a high during the likely run-off period, with short and generally stormy campaigns. The stakes are high, since Liberia could see its first peaceful democratic change of government.

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