Understanding Opposition: Gabrielle Bardall on Election Violence, Undemocratic Elections and Gender

In the 10 years that Gabrielle Bardall has been involved in the field of election assistance and democracy promotion, she has worked with local activists and electoral administrators in many corners of the globe. She was at IFES for almost six of those years where she worked on program management in the Africa region, research at the Applied Reseach Center and coordinated and facilitated trainings in the BRIDGE* curriculum. Currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the Université de Montréal and working as a consultant, Bardall answers some questions about elections in authoritarian states and new perspectives on promoting gender equality.

How long were you at IFES and what positions did you hold?

I started with IFES in early 2005 and by the time I left in 2010, I had held a variety of positions in IFES’ D.C. and field offices. These included working on program management and development for the Africa team in D.C.; serving as a researcher with the Applied Research Center; acting as a field program manager in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Guinea; and working as a facilitator and general coordinator of the BRIDGE program for IFES. Since leaving my full time position, I have been able to continue working with IFES as a consultant.

I have been balancing election assistance consulting and being a full time Ph.D. student at the Université de Montréal since I left IFES in 2010. Thanks to a scholarship from the Trudeau Foundation, I have had the opportunity to engage with an exceptional community of academics and professionals from across Canada. I spent the past eight months in New York City developing knowledge products and training resources on gender and elections for the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Global Program on Electoral Cycle Support. Earlier in the year I was in Cairo, where, as the Carter Center’s first Gender Analyst on an election observation mission core team, we brought women’s political participation to the forefront of the mission’s recommendations. I have also been writing about electoral support topics for Creative Associates, Inc., and conducting trainings for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and UNDP country offices recently.

What is your Ph.D. on and how does the academic work relate to your practical experience?

Elections are necessary to democracy, but they do not guarantee it. Despite optimism over the third wave of democratization, we are seeing that elections do not always succeed in bringing peace and democracy to post-conflict and transitional states. In fact, some elections consolidate authoritarian regimes or enflame violence rather than transition to real democracy. To me, the risks of failing to respond to these dynamics or inadvertently contributing to them are the greatest threats for democracy assistance providers today. This is the challenge I am trying to address through my doctoral research.

Having worked in over two dozen countries with IFES and other organizations, I have seen the election paradox play out in a number of ways. It centers on representation and voice – when a group feels threatened because it believes it cannot receive adequate representation through the electoral process, they go outside the process. Instead of seeking votes, they seek to undermine the regime itself through acts of violence, boycotts and protest. Through my Ph.D., I am developing a better understanding of these dynamics. I am looking for constructive solutions to support the democracy assistance community’s response to current challenges and maximize the tremendous momentum in favor of democracy.

What countries have you worked in throughout your career?

It is really not so much a question of where I have worked, but more about with whom. The extraordinary community of people working for peace and freedom around the world is inspiring and humbling. They are innovators, they have courage, tenacity, creativity and they put themselves in the line of fire over and over again. These qualities are the best way of mapping a career in democracy promotion.

In terms of geography, I have had the great fortune of working with committed human rights and democracy supporters in the four corners of the globe, from Nepal to El Salvador, Jordan to Nigeria. Sub-Saharan Africa is where my passion lies and where I have spent the majority of my career to date. In my years with IFES, working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi shaped my outlook and cemented my conviction in supporting democratic development and peace building. The sheer amount of talent, energy and dedication that was invested in those elections between 2004 and 2010 has been a compass to me ever since.

One of your areas of focus is women’s participation. What are some of the usual impediments to women’s participation?

The subjugation of women and girls is the single greatest human rights challenge of our century. Poverty, illiteracy, high mortality rates, sexual violence, cultural and religious discrimination – there are many structural obstacles right from the outset. Beyond this, election administrators and state lawmakers often undermine women’s participation through gender-biased election laws, procedures and practices. Gender-related political violence at home and in public creates a climate of terror. Male-dominated political parties systematically exclude or marginalize women candidates. Parliaments sideline and even sexually harass women members of parliament, keeping them on the fringe of important decision making. These factors create a formidable challenge for women voting, running as candidates, getting elected to office and participating in governance.

In post-conflict countries where former warring parties share the political arena, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, women’s voices are rarely heard. Where legal protections exist, parties maximize loopholes, as in Egypt where over 70 percent of almost 700 women candidates were placed in virtually unwinnable positions on their party lists in 2012. Around the world, women candidates and voters face systematic physical, psychological and sexual violence used to silence or coerce their political beliefs and actions. While an increasing number of EMBs have gender units, resources allocated to them may be negligible and, in some cases, the gender units may be staffed by employees who do not share the values of gender equality and equal rights.

How can international organizations help locals overcome these?

When planning a technical activity like voter registration, or advising on legal reforms for campaign finance, the critical gender impacts of these choices may not immediately come to mind, yet they are decisive factors that contribute to women’s exclusion. Electoral assistance international organizations (IOs) need to understand how every part of the election cycle has distinct gender impacts. This drive should come from the leadership in IO home offices and from chiefs of party in the field. Including gender advisers on projects, setting goals and measuring project performance against meaningful gender objectives, investing in research, ensuring internal gender-balance in positions through the executive and training mid-career and junior staff are just a few examples. IOs that nurture a culture of equality internally and promote awareness in their staff are best able to translate their commitment and innovation to their work in the field.

You also focus on election violence. What are the main reasons electoral violence occurs?

Election violence occurs because the incumbent and/or opposition actors are unconvinced that the electoral process will adequately represent their interests. Violence is a tool to coerce the results of an election or to protest the process. It commonly takes places between competing parties or by state security forces against opposition groups or voters. It also occurs within the home, where domestic violence, rape, intimidation and economic deprivation is used to control a woman’s political decisions or actions, such as preventing her from running for office or coercing her to vote for her husband or tribe’s choice of party.

Election violence often occurs because of the election paradox I mentioned earlier. In these cases, a political party believes it cannot compete for seats in a fair electoral environment (even though elections may be technically sound) so they use election violence, boycotts, and protest to delegitimize the incumbent regime. Even election violence committed by opposition groups can be constructed to create a perception of incumbent coercion. In many cases, their goal is to manipulate international opinion. If the incumbent is perceived to be undemocratic by international organizations, opposition parties may win validity and recognition even though they did not win seats.

When this payoff is considered to be worth the risk, parties engage in violence and other acts. Thus, international assistance providers must be aware of their direct involvement in the dynamics of violence and chart their actions accordingly.

What is the role of citizens in helping deter or mitigate election violence?

Different forms of violence have different solutions. Preventing and mitigating gender-based election violence requires a concerted effort to address legal loopholes and provide real protection through the law and with the security sectors – for example, as in Bolivia where the first law addressing political violence against women in elections has just been passed. It requires women and men to be sensitized to the distinct nature of gender-based election violence and speak out against the hidden evils of sexual and domestic forms of political violence.

We also need to recognize the diversity of the perpetrators of this kind of election violence – from the Afghan mother-in-law who burnt her daughter-in-law to death for serving in public as a poll worker, to the village priest who beat and threatened a Congolese candidate for running for office instead of staying home with her children.

Other kinds of election violence require profoundly different responses. When political parties reach a point where they believe violence has more to offer than elections do, the window of opportunity is closed to find a solution that is both peaceful and constructive for the future of democracy. Prevention starts long before Election Day – it involves meaningful political dialogue and a shared sense of responsibility and representation in government. Parties must believe that elections will meet the technical standards of free and fair and that the competitive environment is equally fair and accessible. This means that we must pay attention to broader inequalities and injustices, such as campaign finance rules, corruption problems, inter-election legal revisions, independent media, civil liberties and, yes – women’s equality – starting from the moment the new government is sworn in until the next campaign period officially begins.

I would be amiss to overlook the fact that women in office tend to promote non-violence and negotiated solutions – so another reason to promote women in politics is as a strategy to reducing election-related violence.

What is next in this field? Is there a new approach to working on these issues?

There is over a decade of research and writing on hybrid regimes and electoral authoritarianism, which describes the reality of elections in authoritarian states. Despite this, the democracy promotion community has persisted in viewing these states as qualified forms of democracy (“transitional,” “emerging,” “developing,” etc.). I believe the disconnect between academia and practitioners is mutually harmful – practitioners expose themselves to risks of contributing to authoritarian tactics and exacerbating conflict dynamics while academics are limited to describing the situation rather than analyzing potential solutions through examples from the work of international organizations.

Accepting and adapting to the reality of electoral authoritarianism should be viewed as an opportunity, not a threat, by the democracy promotion community. We need to adapt our approach, tools and measurements to this reality and search for solutions outside our traditional conceptual box. Critically analyzing our performance from a broader perspective provides a chance to retire obsolete standards that pose a risk to democracy promotion in today’s environment and opens the door to innovation and new ideas. The first step might be to take a step back. Let us continually return to our founding principles and measure our outcomes in terms of the big picture: advancing the reality (not just the mechanisms) of inclusive and representative democracy.


*BRIDGE stands for Building Resources in Democracy, Governance and Elections. It is a modular professional development program with a particular focus on electoral processes.