Risk or Reward: Elections in Fragile States
Risk or Reward: Elections in Fragile States
Speech / Global

Risk or Reward: Elections in Fragile States

Presentation by Mark L. Schneider, Senior Vice President, at the International Crisis Group's Global Briefing, 6 June 2011, New York City, NY.

I appreciate again the chance to participate in this discussion on the complex nature of elections in fragile states. It is a subject near and dear to my heart as someone who has had the opportunity to participate in the design of the monitoring efforts of the immediate postwar elections in El Salvador and Guatemala and three elections in Haiti, then a decade later to participate as an elections observor in El Salvador that brought the once-upon-a-time FMLN guerrillas to the presidency, in Bolivian parliamentary elections under President Evo Morales, and in a referendum in Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez. I also traveled to Afghanistan and Kenya soon after controversial elections there. Finally, the Crisis Group has reported on nearly 200 elections—before and after—in fragile and post conflict countries.

As Winston Churchill said "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947).  Elections may be the worst way to choose one’s leaders, except for all of the other ways that have been tried.

However, they do not guarantee competent and honest governments nor do they demonstrate that democracy has been achieved. Yet, they are essential for democracy, just not sufficient and must be paralleled by the rule of law, respect for human rights, social cohesion, a vigorous civil society, and economic opportunity and development.

There are several initial risks and opportunities that may be unique to elections in post conflict countries, although most of those also are likely to be fragile.

First, the minimum requirements are that former combatants, returning refugees and internally displaced persons are able to vote, that they are able to form parties that can present candidates who have a reasonably level playing field upon which to compete.  The barring from electoral participation of leftist parties during the Cold War was a factor that sparked past civil conflicts and guarantees of political participation constituted a high priority in peace accords of the late 1980s and ‘90s.

Second, conditions that lower the destabilizing risk of elections include the likely post-election existence of a state capable of performing critical public functions, including assuring citizen security. Another is the existence of a negotiated consensus that the government coming to power through elections will not be operate under a winner-take -all- basis and will allow the losing forces adequate political space in which to function.

Finally, when the nature and timing of the elections are part and parcel of the negotiations leading to a peace accord, there is a better chance the elections will be accepted by former combatant forces. If the UN or other international bodies or groups of countries have facilitated the accord, the former combatants also are more likely to an international role in assisting, conducting, monitoring and almost always financing those elections.

As a result, the international community also has a greater opportunity to help countries determine whether conditions exist enabling the elections to contribute to reconciliation.  Unfortunately, all too often, the international community—with mounting peacekeeping responsibilities and competing commitments for security and diplomatic resources—sees an early election as an exit strategy pure and simple.

Issues which are common to both post-conflict and non-conflict elections are the following:

  • Elections must provide for the transfer of power through peaceful means to the winner;
  • They should be a step in the development of democratic institutions;  and
  • They should offer voters clear alternatives in terms of the direction of the country.

Impediments to effective elections are the persistence of pre-conflict political cleavages, discrimination against ethnic and other minority groups who have not been brought into the mainstream. Polarization frequently  is a societal reality and the state’s justice institutions—police, prosecutors, judges and jails---are far from independent, impartial defenders of the rule of law. Security sector reform also is likely at an immature stage.

Those impediments however are just as likely to be present in fragile states where governance is weak, where rule of law is virtually non-existent except for the power elite who have privileged access to the legal system, and where poverty and inequality deny social justice to citizens.

In addition, where the international community is not managing the electoral process, the key political and technical building blocks for elections take time to put in place.  In making judgments about the adequacy of electoral preparations, one should be asking the question whether citizens are being enfranchised. To determine the answer, one also may ask whether the following conditions exist:

  • An independent electoral tribunal establishing or implementing agreed upon rules for the election. A respected head of that tribunal may be the single most important factor in generating confidence in the process as we just saw in Nigeria where Professor Jega was able to manage the process effectively. The absence of that quality in the Haitian electoral tribunal essentially undermined the process from the start.
  • A registry of voters that is transparently prepared and transparently disseminated that give everyone who is eligible a legitimate chance to register.
  • A process for holding the elections such that polling stations are within general access, poll workers either totally independent or balanced by fair party representation.       
  • Campaign conditions that are generally fair for all.
  • Access to tabulation centers at all levels.
  • Monitoring of the entire process by national and international neutral observors.
  • Accepted mechanism for handling disputes after the election.

The international community often is unwilling to say, until these conditions are met, we are not going to finance these elections.

In Afghanistan, last summer it was evident that the same flaws that had condemned the presidential election a year earlier also would undermine any confidence in the parliamentary elections. The end result was confusion and continuing failure to achieve a functioning parliament for nearly six months. Crisis Group reported the likelihood of this occurring in the run-up to those elections. Even now that process is threatening a constitutional crisis after an executive promoted special tribunal voided 59 of the formerly announced winners.

We saw the same situation in the period prior to last November’s elections in Haiti where it was relatively clear that the aftermath to the earthquake a year ago, like the aftermath to a war, had made it unlikely that an adequate electoral process could take place, a situation further complicated by a cholera epidemic.

Today we see that issue of ill-prepared and manipulated elections arising again in the lead up to this fall’s elections in the Congo—as Crisis Group has reported.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to fair and free elections are not technical, they are political. In fragile states all too often those in power—family, party or region—are unwilling to share that power and prefer manipulated elections that give them a guaranteed retention of power to fair and free elections that carry the risk of defeat and loss of power.

The good news is that governments and dominant parties are no longer confident that they can get away with electoral fraud.

In Haiti last November, the Organization of American States monitoring mission challenged the electoral commission’s finding that the incumbent administration’s candidate had earned participation in a run-off. When clear signs of fraud were revealed, the commission was forced to reverse itself and ousted the incumbent party candidate from the run-off.

In Colombia paramilitary capos determined that political control was essential to their objectives including drug trafficking and the result was a scandal branded “parapolitica” that resulted in a host of parliamentarians winding up in jail or under indictment following court investigation and conviction of illegal paramilitary involvement in their campaigns.

Through the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, countries have commitments to guarantee free and fair elections and the fundamental freedoms critical to their exercise.  Some 167 countries are parties to the covenant. In addition, across the globe, independent institutions focusing on elections have been established. Some are totally non-government like  CAPEL (the Center for Electoral Promotion and Assistance in Latin America), the International Fund for Electoral Systems (IFES) in the U.S., IDEA in Scandinavia and  Elections Institutions for Government of Democracies in Africa (EISA) and the Asia Network for Free Elections. Others like Elections Canada actually run Canadian elections and also provide technical assistance overseas. The UN and regional organizations like the OAS also provide technical electoral support.  Together they seek to assist countries in improving practices for monitoring elections, standards for running elections and try and support the development of effective domestic electoral institutions.

Elections in fragile and not-so-fragile states also continue to pose challenges. One example is taking place in the Western Hemisphere.  With the return of democracy in Latin America since the late ‘80s, most elections have been peaceful and most have been considered substantially fair and free.  

However, increasingly there are signs of regression in some countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua where partisan control of the electoral tribunal or direct interference with the tribunal’s decisions raise the issue of governmental willingness—not capacity-- to permit fair elections. Interference with that basic right violates not only national law but also the commitment of the countries of the Americas, except Cuba, to the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The Charter authorizes member countries to raise alleged violations of democratic norms to the OAS permanent council. However, doing so, risks diplomatic confrontation and few countries have shown a disposition to take on that battle.

The OAS Secretary General also can bring alleged violations of democratic norms to the Council; but again, it would mean his challenging the election of a member state of the organization. If the OAS has had an agreed-upon elections monitoring role, it is easier for him to take that action. In the end, the willingness of anyone to “bell the cat” of electoral fraud is likely to depend on the vigour of human rights and civil society organizations in the Americas.

Elections are difficult, dicey, and at times dangerous moments in post conflict and fragile states.  They are combative and energizing in all countries, and they also are a fundamental way for individual citizens to choose who will represent them in government and therefore they require our utmost efforts to make them the best they can be.

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