Hasty Elections: A Thin Line Between Instability and Peace

On 1 July, a peacekeeping operation (PKO) began work in Mali to support the country’s presidential election, which was held on 28 July. For decades, PKOs have been deployed to ensure democratic transitions in post-conflict societies. These operations’ activities include supporting electoral processes, which many—particularly in the West—view as a stepping stone to democracy, human rights and freedom.

Many such PKOs have been successful. With the assistance of the PKO in Cambodia, in its post-conflict election, voter turnout was high, the authoritarian regime was isolated, a new constitution was written, a new government was formed, and human rights conditions improved. However, there are also less successful cases.

The PKO in Côte d’Ivoire, mandated to supervise the country’s ceasefire agreement and facilitate a national election, could not prevent deadly violence between the supporters of the sitting president, Laurent Gbagbo, and the victorious opposition candidate, Alassane Ouattara, after the former refused to step down.

PKOs, especially those mandated with supporting elections, are often criticized for pursuing a western agenda that strongly emphasizes democratic institutions, human rights, and economic liberalization. The underlying virtue of these norms is evident but the way they have been pursued in many post-conflict countries may not necessarily lead to sustainable peace. Blindly pursuing “democratic institutions” may result in pseudo-democracy, which could potentially worsen the situation, if authoritarian regimes persist for decades despite election cycles. Additionally, political violence can reoccur if the democratic bar has been set too low. Local legitimacy is crucial for credible elections. After all, what do the local population or the international community gain if a chaotic and contested vote leads to an illegitimate presidency that cannot sustain a post-conflict recovery?

This is not to dismiss the benefits of post-conflict elections in an early phase, particularly in light of PKOs’ work in security provision and in state rebuilding. Elections in host states are important for PKOs as they need the support of local counterparts, such as a legitimate government, to fulfill their mandate. The presence of PKOs can also help create conducive conditions for elections. In Sierra Leone, the PKO provided specific election-related training to the police forces. In Haiti, the PKO played a supportive role to national authorities in preparing for the electoral process, in terms of logistics, security, and public awareness raising. In addition, holding an election is often viewed as a first step of a long-term plan of democratization, which is a pre-condition for international donors to provide aid. In the United States, this is even required by federal legislation. Donors need a democratically elected government that can spend their aid money to implement the post-conflict recovery program effectively and efficiently.

The demand from donors for a credible national partner is in large part why Mali is holding an election, despite many considering such a vote to be premature. The situation was – and continues to be – volatile; in the past weeks, violent clashes have raised concerns about whether the country is sufficiently stable for holding elections. Rebel groups control part of Mali’s northern region. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Malians are displaced, internally and externally, and may have faced great obstacles to voting. Given these risks, an election at this stage may be a compromise at best. Following the election on 28 July, reports are mainly positive and speak of a calm, smooth-running presidential vote with a high turnout.

The signs from Mali to date may be encouraging, but it may be too soon to call it a success. A new government per se does not necessarily lead to optimal spending of aid. The economy may grow because of investments, but civil society needs to be strengthened too in order to provide oversight for government spending since other institutions for providing accountability may be weak or lacking. PKOs should also play a role after elections to strengthen civil society by raising public awareness on the need to hold government accountable through checks and balances.

We hope that PKOs will remain committed to supporting democratic transformations. However, instead of playing a role in rushing elections, imposing premature structural economic change and generally importing policies disregarding the context, we urge the PKOs (and the international community working with them) to adopt an approach that is more sensitive to local realities, especially regarding elections. Elections, if conducted properly, can help stabilize the country. Therefore, the democratization process needs to reflect the country’s history, social values and culture. The focus should be on good governance in general and less on having an elected government to disperse aid. Only then can progress towards sustainable democracy, human rights and freedom be achieved.

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