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Timing, preconditions critical for post-conflict elections, UN University experts warn

Elections can undermine as well as consolidate democratic process; new book examines UN's role in promoting democracy

United Nations University

Ill-timed elections risk producing the direct opposite of the intended outcome, fuelling chaos and reversing progress towards democracy, according to United Nations University (UNU) experts who have analyzed recent efforts to promote democracy in post-conflict societies.

"Experience in several countries studied shows that ill-timed or poorly designed elections in volatile situations can be dangerous," says UNU researcher Edward Newman, co-editor of the new book The UN Role In Promoting Democracy, published by UNU Press and launched Monday Oct. 18. "They can exacerbate existing tensions, result in support for extremists or encourage patterns of voting that reflect wartime allegiances. An election will not of itself resolve deep seated problems, particularly in a society deeply traumatized by conflict.

"Experience shows that adding a national election to an already volatile political situation can be a recipe for escalating violence and continuing chaos."

According to contributor Benjamin Reilly of Australian National University: "The important issue is under what circumstances elections help to build a new democratic order and under what circumstances they can undermine democracy and pave the way for a return to conflict.

"Elections are a defining characteristic of democracy but the timing and method of electoral processes are critical. It is one of the perverse realities of post-conflict elections that this lynchpin of the democratic process can also be its undoing."

Reilly notes that variations in electoral procedures can play a key role in determining whether political competition evolves along extremist or centrist lines, and hence in developing moderate and broad-based political parties. Three main areas of variation are crucial influences on the shape of post-conflict politics in most countries.

  • Timing. Should post-conflict elections be held as early as possible, so as to fast-track the process of establishing a new regime? Or should they be postponed until peaceful political routines and issues have been able to come to prominence?
  • Election mechanics: Who runs the elections? How are voters enrolled? What electoral formula is used?
  • Political parties. Especially in cases of weak civil society, political parties are the key link between masses and elites and play a crucial role in building a sustainable democratic polity.

    Reilly says elections had become an integral element of many United Nations peace-keeping missions over the past decade. "The reason is clear. The focus of most UN missions has shifted from pure peace-building to state rebuilding. . . in such cases elections provide a clear signal that the role of the international community may be coming to an end."

    Despite the growth of this kind of electoral assistance since the end of the Cold War, elections have had mixed success in meeting the broader goals of democratization.

    "In some cases, such as Namibia and Mozambique, elections clearly played a vital role in making a decisive break with the past. In others, such as Angola, flawed elections created more problems than they solved. And in Bosnia premature elections helped to kick-start the façade of democratic politics but also helped nationalist parties cement an early grip on political power."

    Reilly says it is still too early to judge how elections have influenced the peace-building process in other post conflict societies such as Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan.

    However, one of the most important lessons learned from recent UN missions is that imposing elections too early, while a country is still in conflict for example, can act as a catalyst for the development of parties and other organizations whose sole purpose is to help local elites gain access to power.

    "In contrast to Bosnia, Angola and other countries, pressure to hold instant post-conflict national elections in Kosovo, East Timor and now Afghanistan has been resisted. Instead, a two-year period of political development has been used to prepare the ground for elections as part of the much longer process of democratization.

    "Although questions remain as to whether even two years is time enough, there is now little doubt about the benefits of a more gradual approach," Reilly says.

    In the final analysis, says co-editor Roland Rich, director of the Centre for Democratic Institution at Australian National University, the UN and other players must decide how to balance the impulse and pressure for democracy with local realities.

    "Whatever the balance, promoting and assisting democracy in post-conflict situations is ambitious and sometimes hazardous," Rich says. "In examining the work of the United Nations in the field, the greatest pressure comes from the inescapable priority to assure a certain level of security before any efforts of democratization can take hold.

    "Democracy needs a functioning state in which to operate and it needs security at least sufficient to allow a free and fair vote to take place. Where it is not possible to assure a workable level of security there can be no effective democratization process."

    Other contributors to The UN Role in Promoting Democracy explore the methods, effectiveness and controversies surrounding the international body's work in promoting and assisting democracy and even question why the UN should be involved in this task in the first place.

    One of the principal driving forces behind the UN's work in favour of democracy is its mandate to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. The so-called democratic peace theory, supported by a study of wars over the past two centuries, concludes that while democratic states often go to war against non-democratic states, they generally remain at peace with each other. In fact, the study suggests that between 1816 and 1991, of the 353 pairings of nations fighting in major international wars, none occurred between two democracies.


    United Nations University

    Established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1973, UNU is an international community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training and the dissemination of knowledge related to pressing global problems. Activities focus mainly on peace and conflict resolution, sustainable development and the use of science and technology to advance human welfare. The University operates a worldwide network of research and post-graduate training centres, with headquarters in Tokyo.

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