Preventing Electoral Violence through Enhancing Security, Trust and Electoral Integrity

Publication Date: 
16 Apr 2015

News Type:

By Vasu Mohan, Regional Director, Europe and Asia and Dr. Ahu Yigit, Researcher

IFES defines electoral violence as “any harm or threat of harm to any person or property involved in the election process, or the process itself, during the election period.” In order to better understand electoral violence, IFES has conducted systematic research on electoral security and electoral violence from a new perspective through the use of previously untapped resources: election observation reports. This article offers highlights from a forthcoming study that aims to shed some light on measures taken by stakeholders around the world to ensure that elections are held free from violence.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) defines electoral violence as “any harm or threat of harm to any person or property involved in the election process, or the process itself, during the election period.” Electoral violence is a unique subcategory of political violence experienced in different forms, ranging from intimidation, to destruction of property, to violent clashes resulting in loss of life. Electoral security, on the other hand, encompasses all aspects of protecting electoral stakeholders such as voters, candidates, poll workers, media and observers; electoral information such as vote results and registration data; electoral property such as campaign materials, ballot papers, results sheets and indelible ink; electoral facilities such as polling stations and counting centers; and electoral events such as campaign rallies, against disruption, damage or death.

IFES’ approach to electoral security goes beyond the prevention of damage or violence. It implies an environment where all people – free from fear, intimidation, or coercion – are able to exercise their fundamental political rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and acknowledged and reinforced in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and other United Nations (UN) and international instruments such as UN Security Council Resolution 1325, and provided for in national Constitutions and electoral legislation and regulations.

Due to political realities on the ground, elections are often held under volatile and high-risk political and social contexts. Consequently, enabling a peaceful environment where the right to vote or to stand for election are exercised without violence is a major challenge faced regularly by election management bodies (EMBS) and other actors involved in elections such as political parties and candidates, security forces, media, civil society organizations, religious and community leaders and judicial officials. These entities often employ a number of tools at their disposal to work toward peaceful elections.

IFES has recently conducted systematic research on electoral security and electoral violence from a new perspective through the use of previously untapped resources: election observation reports. We have studied 175 election observer reports for 172 elections.1 These reports are from election observation missions fielded by well-established organizations globally.2 In a forthcoming report, we identify and categorize the most common successful violence mitigation and prevention measures that have been mentioned in these reports. While we acknowledge that the election observation reports do not necessarily include detailed information on all aspects of those elections and the political context, they nevertheless provide considerable information that is substantiated with data collected on the ground by observer missions. Also, since these reports often follow a similar structure, they provide additional advantages for comparative purposes. We have collected these reports from the Ace Project Electoral Knowledge Network’s database. We have not limited the type of elections studied and our data pool has various types of elections from national elections to local elections or referendums. Below, we offer some highlights from the study.

The effectiveness of the tools employed in mitigating and avoiding electoral violence depends on the political context as well as the performance of electoral actors. In some cases, the primary security providers (i.e., the nation’s official security forces) may become the instigators of violence. State violence might be in the form of the security agents seeking to change the demographics of a constituency, as observers noted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s 2011 general elections, or as intimidation by representatives of the State to influence voting decisions.

In some elections, media coverage might fuel electoral violence through misinformation and hate speech. EMBs that are in charge of delivering free and fair elections might suffer from poor decision-making, overt partisanship and incompetency and thus escalate the risks for electoral violence. The end-result is electoral malpractice and impaired electoral integrity. Research demonstrates that countries suffering from electoral malpractice are more susceptible to electoral violence. The National Elections Across Democracy and Autocracy (NELDA) database from Yale University’s Department of Political Science shows that within elections that have the poorest electoral integrity scores, four out of each ten elections became the scene of fatal violence.3 What’s more, violent clashes occurred in nearly all of the countries with low electoral integrity scores. Death and violent clash rates are dramatically lower in countries with better electoral integrity scores and less electoral malpractice.4

Kenya’s 2007 presidential elections provide a case to examine the escalation of electoral violence. Among the factors that provoked violence during these elections, both electoral malpractice through the EMB’s administrative failure and inflammatory media broadcasts are commonly mentioned. The Electoral Commission of Kenya’s failure to achieve transparent and accountable vote-counting was identified as one of the most significant triggers of the violence that broke out during the presidential elections.5 On the media front, rural radio stations provided a venue for hate speech and the discourse on these stations was eerily reminiscent of the discourse used against Tutsis in Rwanda during the genocide.6

The opposite scenarios are not uncommon either. Responsible media and security forces might stop violence from spreading or breaking out in the first place. In Kenya, six years later, a newly-appointed EMB, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, that operated under new legislation and regulations was able to conduct a far less violent presidential election.7 Aware of its role in escalating violence in 2007, the media also exercised considerable self-restraint and avoided live broadcasts of press conferences by political parties.8 Although this was a form of self-censorship, which might play into the hands of certain political groups, it was nevertheless a considerable move to prevent violence. The performance of Kenyan media was also praised by European Union Election Observers on the ground.9

In some other cases, EMBs, media and other stakeholders might act responsibly yet still remain helpless in the face of electoral violence. This is particularly relevant in the cases where there is an ongoing and deep-rooted political conflict extending beyond elections and most certainly beyond the reach of many electoral stakeholders.

A certain policy action or violence-preventative measure that has proven helpful in mitigating violence in one particular election might not be applicable or relevant in another context. What makes electoral violence so difficult to address is the complex set of dynamics that lie at the core of electoral processes themselves. However, some tentative conclusions are still distinguishable.

It is important to note that EMB credibility plays a significant role in preventing electoral violence according to studies and observer reports. Indeed, credibility has even been named as “the most valuable asset any EMB can possess” because it can dramatically enhance electoral security.10 A study conducted in a number of West African countries shows that for a variety of electoral stakeholders, independence is the key to trust in EMBs and thus in electoral processes.11

Electoral security and prevention of electoral violence continue to remain key issues in elections around the world from Papua New Guinea to Bangladesh, from Myanmar to Nigeria, and Sri Lanka to Ukraine. We hope this study will shed some light on effective measures taken by stakeholders around the world to ensure that elections are held free from violence.

The research referred to in this article was conducted in collaboration with Research Consultant Andrew McCoy, IFES Program Coordinator Ritika Bhasker, IFES Program Coordinator Ryan Bennett and IFES Regional Program Coordinator Sue Pang.

1 For three elections there were two reports respectively: South Africa (2014), Afghanistan (2010), and Egypt (2011-2012).

2These organizations include the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union Election Observation Missions, the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Commonwealth of Nations, the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, SHARE El Salvador and the Organization of American States.

3For more information on the NELDA, see http://pan.oxfordjournals.org/content/20/2/191.full.pdf+html.

4Pippa Norris. (2012). “Why Electoral Malpractices Heighten Risks of Electoral Violence,” APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper, p. 14, available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2104551.

5Michael Yard. (2014). “Technology and Electoral Violence” in Almami Cyllah (ed). Elections Worth Dying for? A Selection of Case Studies from Africa, Washington D.C.: IFES, p. 60.

6Christian Hennemeyer. (2014). “Media and Electoral Violence” in Almami Cyllah (ed). Elections Worth Dying for? A Selection of Case Studies from Africa, Washington D.C.: IFES, p. 95-96.

7Yard (2014), p. 60.

8Michela Wrong (March 14, 2013). “To be Prudent is to be Partial,” The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, available at www.nytimes.com/glogin?URI=http%3A%2F%2Flatitude.blogs.nytimes.com%2F2013%2F03%2F14%2Ferring-on-the-side-of-caution-kenyas-media-undercovered-the-election%2F%3F_r%3D0.

9European Union, Election Observation Mission to Kenya, General Elections 2013, Final Report. Available at http://www.eods.eu/library/eu-eom-kenya-2013-final-report_en.pdf.

10Staffan Darnolf and Almami Cyllah. (2014). “EMBs and Electoral Violence,” in Almami Cyllah (ed). Elections Worth Dying for? A Selection of Case Studies from Africa, Washington D.C.: IFES. p. 15.

11Pascal Kambale. (2011). “Introduction,” in Electoral Management Bodies in West Africa: A Comparative Study of the Contribution of Electoral Commissions to the Strengthening of Democracy, Ismaila Madior Fall, Mathias Hounkpe, Adele L. Jinadu, Pascal Kambale (eds). Johannesburg: Open Society Foundations, p. 4-5.