Electoral violence would seem an easier target for prevention efforts than most types of political violence, given that we know the date of the election, the divisive issues, and the protagonists in advance. And yet, if the data from sub-Saharan Africa offer any guide, we are no closer to reducing the incidence of electoral violence today, than in 1990—the onset of democracy on the continent.2 In contrast, the efforts at the international, regional, national, and local levels to prevent electoral violence have increased steadily in the same time period, forming a patchwork of interventions that are revelatory in themselves: The flurry of activity in the advent of an election from a multitude of sources, attempting to affect a panoply of variables simultaneously, often fails to have an effective impact on the drivers of electoral violence.

As a community of conflict experts, we struggle to define and understand the phenomenon of electoral violence and, subsequently, how and when to prevent it. To successfully prevent it, we should start from the premise that electoral violence is a unique subset of political violence— distinguished by its timing, motivation, objectives, and perpetrators—used as a strategy by political operatives and supporters to achieve their political ends.

Political operatives use violence because it attains the desired political ends without suffering negative repercussions. Preventing electoral violence requires removing the use of violence from the toolbox of political strategies altogether. Concretely, that means improving the integrity of elections, improving the response to early warning, and punishing perpetrators. In recent years, practitioners have focused heavily on improving the integrity of elections. However, the challenges of responding to early warnings and the failure to punish perpetrators contribute to the persistence of electoral violence.

Predicting Electoral Violence

While electoral violence occurs on every continent, considerable strides toward unpacking its scope, characteristics, and intensity comes from the African Electoral Violence Database (AEVD), developed by Scott Straus and Charlie Taylor. The AEVD examines sub-Saharan Africa’s national elections from 1990 to 2008 and reveals that violence (ranging from low-intensity intimidation and harassment to large-scale violence) accompanies 58 percent of elections in Africa. However, the large scale violence that Togo witnessed in 2005, or Kenya in 2008, takes place in just 10 percent of cases. The AEVD also indicates a high rate of recurring cycles of electoral violence and reveals that 95 percent of all violence occurs before the election.3 Political operatives use violence as an electoral strategy on two occasions: first, when politicians face close elections or fear a postelection protest in situations of weak institutional constraints;4 and second, in majoritarian systems with environments of economic inequality and when large ethnic groups feel excluded from power.5 These data present opportunities for preventive measures, but often intervention programs overlook these facts.

Preventing Electoral Violence

Given what we know about electoral violence—that it occurs mostly before elections, political operatives use it as a tool to meet political objectives, weak institutional environments make it more likely, and it tends to repeat—how can organizations and governments successfully improve the integrity of elections, respond effectively to early warning, and punish perpetrators?

Improving the Integrity of Elections
In their report, “Deepening Democracy: A Strategy for Improving the Integrity of Elections Worldwide,” the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy, and Security defined elections with integrity as “any election that is based on the democratic principles of universal suffrage and political equality…and is professional, impartial, and transparent in its preparation and administration throughout the electoral cycle.”6 Indeed, improving the integrity of an election is important; its absence can lead to violence. In Bangladesh’s recent elections, for example, opposition parties violently protested the government’s refusal to name a caretaker government ahead of the elections, leading to the country’s most violent elections to date. Not surprisingly, therefore, electoral integrity informs the prevention efforts by local democracy-building institutions and international institutions, such as the United Nations, the European Union, IFES, the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and USAID.

However, a country’s conflict dynamics and the political environment of a particular election can limit the positive impact of an election’s integrity, as Nigeria’s 2011 polls illustrate. Whereas observers lauded Nigeria’s electoral process for its vast improvement over previous elections, the postelection violence turned out to be more intense than all the elections in the country’s history combined. Supporters of Muhammadu Buhari (a northern Muslim), who lost to Goodluck Jonathan (a southern Christian), clashed violently, leaving more than eight hundred people dead and sixty-five thousand displaced in three days. Buhari’s supporters did not accept the result from Nigeria’s relatively well-managed election—even though observers found it credible. The technical improvements could not overcome the conflict between those who claimed that it was the turn of a northern Muslim to rule versus those who argued that it was time to move beyond regional and religious power sharing.

Linking Early Warning with Early Response
The prevention of violence necessitates a prompt response to emerging tensions or violent incidents. International and local efforts commonly identify hot spots or areas vulnerable to violence: USAID’s election security program uses its conflict analysis framework to understand a country’s propensity for electoral violence, and online platforms such as Ushahidi, which emerged from the 2007–08 postelection violence in Kenya, use information from texts, blogs, social media, and smart phone apps to map a picture of the occurrence of violence. The difficulty remains in the follow-up to the early warnings. Some organizations, however, address this critical link: The Open Society Initiative of West Africa helps coordinate civil society organizations to monitor and respond quickly to developments in the electoral process, and IFES’ Election Violence Education and Resolution program aims to train civil society on how to monitor and respond to unrest during the electoral process.

However, organizations find it hard to successfully operationalize early warning/ early response programs. For instance, the UN certification team reported a number of worrying irregularities and incidents in the lead-up to East Timor’s 2007 parliamentary elections, which cast doubt on the final results.7 Indeed, as Ghana’s Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO) demonstrates, effective early warning/ early response requires engagement and coordination with many stakeholders and processes. CODEO’s specially-trained electoral violence observers submit reports to a team comprising representatives of CODEO, security services, national institutions, community leaders, and civil society organizations. Drawing on consultations with community stakeholders and an understanding of local conflict dynamics, the team decides whether a tense situation warrants interventions by community leaders, mediators, security personnel, or the media. CODEO’s work validates that early response to early warning pays off; they report a substantial decrease in violent incidents as election day approaches.8 Yet assembling and coordinating such an approach often goes beyond the financial, staffing, and logistical resources of many organizations.

Punishing the Use of Violence
Punishing perpetrators can reduce the appeal of violence. Thus far, few have been prosecuted for electoral offences. Recently, the international community’s leverage to investigate and prosecute electoral violence was weakened with the International Criminal Court’s dismissal of charges against Uhuru Kenyatta, president of Kenya, for his alleged role in the country’s 2008 postelection violence. At the national levels, equally dismal track records exist, with alleged perpetrators of violence repeatedly contesting elections, remaining in office, or otherwise not investigated. As the unraveling Kenyan case demonstrated, only a multifaceted endeavor can remove these impediments towards punishment: witnesses and evidence must be protected, a clear justification for prosecuting electoral violence must be established, and national institutions must buy into the process.

In some cases, too, violence appears to have paid off: Zanzibar’s opposition, the Civic United Front, and the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi negotiated a government of national unity after several years of recurring violence during elections. In this arrangement, all parties got a place in government. Similar controversial power sharing arrangements occurred after election violence in Kenya (2008) and Zimbabwe (2009). These cases demonstrate how preventing violence involves deepening democratic processes and strengthening institutions to resolve electoral disputes in addition to prosecuting perpetrators.


Preventing the use of violence as a political strategy to win elections includes improving the integrity of elections, responding to early warning of impending violence, and punishing perpetrators. Organizations increasingly focus on improving elections’ integrity. But international, national, and local organizations struggle to intervene effectively when tensions rise, or punish the use of violence. Even when provided with early warnings, organizations and state entities frequently do not succeed in reducing tensions, resulting in escalating violence and apparent impunity for perpetrators. This fails to break the cycle of electoral violence. Furthermore, innovative programs and partnerships that get to the heart of why violence appeals to political operatives mandates a deeper intervention into the political, social, and local conflict dynamics in which an electoral contest takes place—a risky endeavor for any organization. Unless prevention efforts account for the existing conflict dynamics in which an election takes place, develop a fast response to emerging tensions, or punish those who use violence to attain political objectives, electoral violence will continue unabated.