Supporting elections in contexts of civil conflict entails daunting challenges for the United States and other international actors. While elections are an almost inevitable part of peace building processes, if badly managed they can provoke or intensify violent conflict. Carnegie and the North-South Institute hosted a panel discussion on the complexities of elections in conflict contexts with Boston University’s Susanne Mueller, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Benjamin Reilly, and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Francesc Vendrell. Carnegie's Tom Carothers moderated the discussion. The event also marked the launch of a new book by the North-South Institute, Elections in Dangerous Places.

Elections: Functions and Dilemmas

  • Functions of elections: The primary role of elections is to choose representatives, select executives, and give legitimacy to a political system, Reilly argued.
  • Absence of necessary conditions: Established democracies are characterized by the supremacy of the rule of law and an acceptance of an electoral loss by all political actors, Mueller observed. These conditions, she added, are not present in most post-conflict countries. As a result, even the best electoral management can be subverted by informal incentives, such as elite bargaining, to maintain the status quo or undermine the entire system.
  • Great expectations: In conflict zones, the expectation is that elections will both promote democracy and establish peace. Reilly stressed, however, that democracy and peace are often in tension as elections inherently create conflict between parties.
  • Election timing: While previously democracy promoters believed that it was best for conflict regions to hold elections as soon as possible, recent scholarship indicates that elections held very rapidly following a conflict often result in a return to conflict, Reilly stated.
  • Calendar: A clear transition timeline is essential to any transition in post-conflict countries because its helps establish target dates, Vendrell argued.
  • Inclusivity: Inclusivity is important, but should not be the primary goal of elections, Reilly said. Elections in conflict zones also need to result in a regime able to govern and implement decisions.
  • Case-by-case: Each country is different, Vendrell said, cautioning against following a set of generalizable rules for conducting elections in post-conflict countries.

Case Studies

  • Kenya: In Kenya, the election results and electoral management were undermined by other factors that made the enforcement of reforms very difficult, Mueller explained. These factors included violence used to affect election results; changes to state institutions that effectively removed any checks on the power of the presidency; and a winner-takes-all system divided along ethnic lines.
  • Afghanistan: Vendrell outlined a number of factors that contributed to the problems with the 2009 elections in Afghanistan, including a lack of pressure on the Afghan government by the United States; the single, non-transferable vote electoral system, which led to a lack of political parties and atomization within the parliament; and inadequate American and NATO support for the Afghan government having a monopoly on force within the country.

Significance of Electoral Systems

  • Proportional representation: While the proportional representation system is representative and popular within the international community, it can produce a highly fragmented and ineffective parliament because the threshold for representation in the parliament is often very low, Reilly argued.
  • Single, non-transferable vote electoral system: The single, non-transferable vote electoral system implemented in Afghanistan contributed to the absence of the development of political parties and fragmentation within the parliament because candidates could win a seat with very few votes and had to run unaffiliated, Vendrell stated. 

Power-sharing Agreements

  • Violence: Power sharing agreements can be problematic, Mueller stated, because they create the possibility of reverting to a one-party state. Nevertheless, such agreements can be necessary at times and can be one means of stopping violence.
  • Afghanistan: In order to move forward in Afghanistan, Vendrell said, there is a need for a power sharing agreement and a national unity government in order to build a consensus around a new political settlement.

Implications for International Actors

  • Not just elections: Donors to democracy projects need to think about underlying political economy factors that can remain and undermine any reform attempts, such as zero-sum ethnicization and violence, Mueller argued.
  • Electoral system: The international community needs to think not just about what electoral system is easiest to administer, but also about which will produce the best outcomes in a post-conflict country, Reilly added.