A Conflict Cycle Perspective on Electoral Violence
Gabrielle Bardall, Research Officer, Applied Research Center
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While the development community often looks to elections to stabilize and legitimize government, elections often bring social tensions to a head and may trigger violence. Election-related violence is a unique form of conflict and requires specifically designed responses for effective prevention, mitigation and resolution. When we fail to recognize the uniqueness of election-related violence the burden of responding is too often placed on the shoulders of a few actors. Yet, as we develop an increasingly textured understanding of the phenomenon, it is clear that the development community must move beyond ad hoc, compartmentalized approaches and take a more comprehensive, multi-stakeholder approach to election conflict.

Elections and the conflict cycle

Election management specialists have come to regard election planning as a cyclical, rather than event-driven, field. Beginning with pre-electoral activities (such as planning, training and registration) and moving through election-period activities (candidate nomination, campaigning, voting and results management) to the post-electoral period (legal reform, reviews and strategic planning), each phase of the cycle is interdependent. This approach helps practitioners situate their work within the big-picture framework of democratic growth and development objectives. It also forces an awareness of the broad variety of stakeholders that contribute to this development process. Extending well beyond election management bodies, the ability of an electoral process to achieve its democratic development objectives relies on the political actors, government agencies and security bodies, civic and media groups and national purveyors of justice to uphold their roles in the process. Just as almost all sectors of society have an interest in the outcome of an election, they have equal responsibility in promoting its integrity.

While this holistic approach is proving increasingly effective for improving electoral assistance, conflict and violence continue to threaten or mar a disproportionate number of elections in developing democracies. Although practitioners readily support the holistic approach to enhancing electoral management, they have traditionally not been as quick to adopt holistic conflict cycle approaches to address election violence. Instead, electoral support providers often revert to limited, sector-specific responses that fall short of addressing the broader issues and full range of stakeholders involved.

This is changing. Electoral practitioners are starting to use the conflict cycle perspective to election violence to inform their programmatic responses to electoral conflict. This perspective helps identify links between conflict causes, tensions, outbursts and solutions and helps determine effective responses. Using this lens to understand violence in the election cycle helps election practitioners expand their slate of programming responses away from sector-specific options (such as discrete security or justice sector actions) and towards a thematic approach that addresses the roles of the full range of stakeholders over the entire conflict cycle.

A thematic approach to addressing election conflict

The conflict cycle has four phases: (1) conflict analysis; (2) conflict prevention; (3) conflict management and mitigation; and (4) conflict resolution. To be effective, election conflict management must identify the steps each stakeholder group should take in each phase and the links between those actions and between the phases of the cycle. The steps, main stakeholders and examples of selected key actions for each actor in each phase are described in the following diagram.

A thematic approach to election conflict and selected responses

Figure 1. A thematic approach to election conflict and selected responses

In every phase of the conflict cycle, each primary electoral stakeholder has important roles to play in avoiding, reducing or resolving conflict. Taking a thematic approach focusing on conflict helps practitioners develop cross-cutting responses. Recognizing the conflict-related threats and opportunities in each part of the electoral cycle also helps stakeholders better understand how their actions can help prevent violence. The rest of this article offers some examples of how this plays out in practice.

Conflict analysis. Well before the active tensions and triggers that set off election violence appear, stakeholders can better position themselves by studying the causes and historic patterns of election violence in their country. For example, they can use risk assessment methodologies and conflict mapping software to map, track and analyze data on structural tensions, social divides and friction points throughout the country. Using public outreach initiatives during this phase, civic actors and political parties can gain key insights into their constituencies, both in terms voter education needs and constituents’ policy priorities. By analyzing the legal regulatory framework for elections, justice sector officials can identify weak spots and potential friction points within the legal framework. While no conflict analysis is ever exhaustive, when all the primary stakeholders do their own research at this stage it fosters a deeper understanding of the dynamics that cause conflict in the electoral process.

Conflict prevention. In this phase, perhaps the most important element is the work of electoral management bodies (EMBs) in identifying best practices and regulatory provisions to ensure integrity of an electoral process. This includes developing auditable procedures that prevent or deter fraud and corruption, as well as measures to ensure transparency and inclusive participation in the election. However, conflict prevention does not stop with the EMBs. Government agencies and security providers work with EMBs to mainstream security and electoral issues in multi-agency stakeholder settings, including developing strategic, comprehensive security plans and operational rooms. In the justice and legislative sectors, reviewing and making necessary reforms throughout the electoral framework (e.g. legislation, boundary delimitation, the composition of election management bodies, and candidate and voter registration) helps identify issues that may aggravate the risk of violence during an electoral process and propose effective alternatives. Electoral conflict prevention also relies heavily on non-governmental actors, including media, civil society and political parties, to educate, advocate and provide early warning mechanisms around election violence. It is useful to develop codes of conduct that establish parameters for appropriate standards of behavior during an election for all actors (candidates and political parties, media outlets and journalists, electoral officials, security forces), especially those that specifically focus on ensuring a non-violent campaign atmosphere. Educational initiatives that address causes of concern (including voter information campaigns and civic awareness promoting non-violence) help diffuse or channel tension before it triggers violence.

Conflict management and mitigation. When election conflict prevention fails, stakeholders engage in a spectrum of mitigation and management responses. A range of cross-sectoral early response mechanisms exist to track political and electoral developments and to monitor violent incidents in order to facilitate quick responses to emerging risks or flare-ups. EMB and security sector preparedness can play a decisive role in rapidly quelling violence. Two essential elements are: (1) developing an electoral security plan (e.g. based on scenarios during the campaign, polling and results periods) to manage potential “hot-spots”; and (2) training security forces and election workers on electoral security issues (e.g. management of campaign rallies and crowd control at polling stations). Troubleshooting mechanisms that involve electoral actors (such as political party liaison panels and “green line” emergency call systems) in identifying and managing conflicts can also provide channels for addressing nascent conflicts. Information management is another key tool. Training election officials, political parties, candidate representatives and observers on how to gather accurate, credible information on electoral breaches as well as how to disseminate information in a non-inflammatory manner, can tip the scale against growing violence. When the media follows best practices for accurately reporting electoral issues it helps efforts to control the violence by mitigating inflammatory coverage and avoiding hate speech or censorship. Mediation led by EMBs and civil society before violence escalates is also important.

Conflict resolution. Resolving election-related conflict depends heavily – but not exclusively – on formal and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. More formal legal adjudications are more likely to be effective if the groundwork has been laid by identifying in advance potential legal points of contention, educating political partisans on how to submit acceptable official dispute claims, and training judges, lawyers and electoral administrators in dispute resolution and the investigation of alleged fraud. At the same time, alternative dispute mechanisms can also resolve tensions by focusing on negotiated resolution (rather than punishment) of electoral disputes. The ongoing results as government agencies and EMBs engage in lessons-learned processes further add to improved performance in the future.

In short, applying conflict theories to the electoral cycle allows a better understanding of the inter-related roles that key stakeholders play in reducing violent conflict around an election. By identifying these distinct roles, we enable the development of comprehensive programming responses to election violence that bridge both differing sectors and differing phases throughout the election cycle. There is strength in numbers: Shifting responsibility around the room and over time is creating stronger defenses against these ongoing threats to democracy development.

IFES’ approach to mitigating election violence

Election conflict and violence can develop during all phases of the electoral cycle. Therefore IFES programming approaches are designed to respond to threats throughout the electoral process in order to prevent, mitigate and resolve election-related conflict. Among the first election-support providers to study the role of conflict in the electoral process, IFES has developed applied research and offered programs for addressing election-violence in over a dozen countries since 2001.

One example is the IFES Election Violence Education and Resolution project (EVER). Through community-based election violence monitoring, education and advocacy, EVER provides early warning and response to electoral stakeholders. Other targeted tools, such as election violence risk assessments and mapping, allow IFES to work with government ministries, security managers and election administrators to manage threats of election-related violence. By working with community peace committees and through media campaigns, IFES seeks to address election conflict at the grassroots level as well.

By Gabrielle Bardall, Research Officer, F. Clifton White Applied Research Center for Democracy and Elections, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES)

This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Monday Developments. www.mondaydevelopments.org.

The author would like to thank IFES-Lebanon Chief of Party Richard Chambers and the staff of the F. Clifton White Applied Research Center for Democracy and Elections for their assistance in writing this article.