Understanding electoral violence to better prevent it

Electoral violence in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011. © UN

Electoral violence in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011. © UN

6 Dec 2017

Understanding electoral violence to better prevent it

While most elections in West Africa have been held in a peaceful environment in recent years, various acts of violence have been recorded. What is the nature of this violence and how to eradicate it for good?

Since the 1990s, the elections in West Africa have often been a strong opportunity to express violence. Togo in 2005, Nigeria in 2007, Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-2011, Guinea in 2010, to mention only a few countries, experienced mixed fortunes. This violence, which is experienced by the populations, political actors, leaders, and the international community, takes root from the historical, political, and socio-economic parameters. Understanding these parameters would allow to take a proactive approach and prevent violence.

Electoral violence is a variant of political violence. However, electoral violence can be distinguished from the political violence family through its particular objective. Indeed, it is aimed at influencing the behavior of the voters, candidates or distorting the results of the elections. For this purpose, it attempts to delay, prevent the vote or compilation of votes, in order to obtain results, which do not reflect the verdict of the ballot box.

As observed, electoral violence can take place in any stage of the electoral process. It can happen before or on the polling day, as it was the case in the Guinean elections in 2010. It can also break out just after the elections as in the 2005 presidential election in Togo and in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010.

The origins and causes of electoral violence

According to many analysts, the elections are not the root cause of violence. Indeed, the elections are perceived as a catalyst or accelerator of violence. However, the elections may escalate existing tensions, especially when they are not credible. The remote causes of electoral violence are often related to the poorly managed, ill-managed, or unmanaged crises.

Electoral violence takes place more frequently in countries emerging from political instability, civil war, or coup. In such contexts, the elections stiffen the positions of formerly conflicting parties, who use violence as the only means to express themselves. It should be also noted that electoral violence takes place more often in a context of democratic transition or disarmament and demobilization following civil war; real or alleged rigging of elections; major challenges involving ethnic groups, clans, economic powers, and political actors; a minor difference between the candidates’ results; unclear or disputed legal framework; non-impartial management bodies; lack of transparency, including electoral data management, proven or alleged fraud in the electoral process; first-past-the-post system; exclusion of specific communities during the electoral process.

Triggers and expressions

Electoral violence is triggered during the electoral period, when the party in a strong or weak position finds that the other party is unilaterally setting the rules of the game for its own benefit. The most common trigger events are the following: registration in voters’ lists, establishment of the electoral administration, and electoral results. Electoral violence is expressed through the following actions: violation of the legal framework; offensive or indecent words; murders; injury between rival supporters; intimidation of opponents, voters, or electoral officials; ballot stuffing; exclusion of communities. Therefore the targets of acts of violence include: persons, either individuals or communities, or even candidates; equipment, e.g. electoral campaign equipment, vehicles, offices, polling stations. Electoral violence includes: verbal and symbolic electoral violence, psychological electoral violence, and physical electoral violence, structural or institutional violence. The voters can be prevented from participating in the poll, forced to choose a candidate against their will. As a result, the elections are either disrupted or cancelled straightaway.

Which approach to prevent electoral violence?

Preventing electoral violence requires undoubtedly working in the periods when it is expressed: before, during, and after the elections.
Before the elections, trust should be built between all stakeholders to set the rules of the competition, meaning the legal framework, which ensures integrity of the electoral process. The actions to be taken in this stage include also the consensual establishment of a body responsible for organizing the election. The electoral administration, including few or no political actors, should guarantee all parties involved a sound, equitable, and fair competition. The consensual registration in the voters’ lists, the transparent production and actual distribution of voters’ cards also mitigate the potential sources of conflict.

During the electoral period, which runs from the electoral campaign to the announcement of the results, transparency should prevail in all electoral operations. The electoral administration has a great role to play in this task, which is incumbent on them in the first place. They should not only take actions after consultations with the parties, but also publish them in a timely manner. Therefore they should make sure that the detailed results of the elections are diligently displayed, published from the lowest level (polling station) to the highest level of the electoral chain (electoral constituency, which may be the neighborhood, the municipality, the department, or the whole country, according to the circumstances). In a practical way, protection measures must be taken to prevent fraud on the polling day, in order to reduce violence potential. These measures include maintaining secrecy, numbering ballot papers, and providing secure handling of the electoral materials.
The management of the post-electoral period follows the announcement of the results. It is a little bit more delicate when the results are disputed by one of the parties. This period requires an impartial judiciary system as it has the greatest responsibility. In fact, when the electoral dispute starts, the institution responsible for settling litigations, must not take or give the impression of taking the side of any party.

After the inventory of the various actions, which are appropriate to each stage of the electoral process and intended to prevent electoral violence, there are other actions, the implementation of which is not limited to only one stage of the process. They are crucial and remain cross-cutting. These include: assessing the existence and seriousness of long-standing political and social problems and claims; considering and implementing dispute settlement policies; improving the electoral process for more transparency; working to build and maintain trust. Political parties and republican institutions must also educate their people, especially potential voters, in good electoral practices.

Contributions of regional and international instruments

To reinforce the exercise of democracy, maintain peace, and eliminate violence, including electoral violence, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has put in place a number of mechanisms, including the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. The Protocol provides for strict compliance with constitutional provisions in electoral practices. Consequently, it forbids obtaining or maintaining power through unconstitutional means and defines the parameters for the conduct of peaceful, credible, free, fair, and transparent elections.

The African Union (AU) also contributes to reducing electoral violence through its 2012 Memorandum of Understanding on Stability, Development, and Cooperation. This Memorandum indicates that transparent and credible elections are a key element, which promotes respect for the fundamental and universal right to participatory and democratic governance. It forbids also unconstitutional changes of government.

In collaboration with the various regional organizations, the United Nations, through the UNOWAS and different agencies, makes every effort and provides support to contribute to eradicating electoral violence and improving good governance in West Africa.

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