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Planting elections in barren soil? Timing and sequencing of elections after violent conflict

September 21, 2018 • By Sead Alihodzic
Desert Flower, Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Large-scale violent conflicts are devastating in many ways. They cause death, suffering, destruction of infrastructure and resource depletion.  Somewhat less visible though, is how they tear apart the delicate social fabric within and between communities. Comprehensive peacebuilding efforts are therefore multidimensional, aiming to sustain peace, support economic consolidation, promote reconciliation, and to restore or establish democracy and the good governance. In achieving the latter, elections are an indispensable instrument.

It is now well established that appropriate electoral rules, which for example set a level playing field for elections, may alleviate social tensions, or if otherwise, exaggerate them. Further, trusted and capable electoral management and electoral justice institutions are necessary (although not sufficient) for the conduct of peaceful and credible elections. As a result, it is common for peace agreements to include specific provisions about the organization of democratic elections (for example in Bosnia and Herzegovina 1995, East Timor 1999, Bougainville 2001, Liberia 2003, the Central African Republic 2013). On the implementation side, the international community often avails electoral assistance throughout the electoral cycle

While the mechanics of international electoral support - implemented by international governmental and non-governmental organizations - have advanced through decades of practice, one recurring question remains difficult to answer, namely: “When is a good time to conduct the first election after violent conflict, and how to sequence it against other peacebuilding processes”? 

Organizing elections quickly after violent conflict can be risky, because of non-existent or weak electoral institutions, the need to register a large number of internally displaced persons and refugees, security challenges, and unresolved grievances. On the other hand, long-delayed elections will prolong the establishment of legitimate and representative government and undermine prospects for receiving international development support. Also, the momentum for positive change attained in the peace process may be lost. In either case, if the decision on the timing and sequencing of the first post-conflict elections is not conflict sensitive, it may lead to the relapse of violence.  Stark examples are Liberia, following the 1997 elections which were marred with irregularities, or Angola, following the political turmoil and outbreak of violence between the two rounds of the 1992 presidential elections.  

To contribute to the debate and formulate policy recommendation on this topic, International IDEA has reached out to high-profile experts and organizations involved in providing mediation, peacebuilding and electoral support in countries experiencing democratic transitions (including shifts from war to peace).  Key findings, that draw on experts’ inputs and discussions, confirm that decisions on the timing and sequencing of transitional elections will always need to be context specific. However, such decisions need to be the result of a thorough thought process in which all options are carefully weighted. These and other findings will be elaborated in the International IDEA policy paper on the Timing and Sequencing of Transitional Elections, forthcoming in 2018.

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About the authors

Sead Alihodzic
Principal Adviser Elections, Conflict and Risk Management
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