Post-Conflict Elections: Uncertain Turning Points of Transition
Author: Benjamin Reilly
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Are elections beneficial in fragile states emerging from conflict? Is there a way of enhancing democracy while ensuring stability? This paper from the Australian National University examines the tensions between the short and long-term goals of post-conflict elections - ending war and consolidating democracy. It calls for a more realistic and less ideological appraisal of elections which recognises that they can be either beneficial or harmful to post-conflict democratisation. Success depends on careful consideration of timing, sequencing, mechanics and administration.
Post-conflict elections are widely seen as integral to peacebuilding, to international disengagement, and to nation-building. However, their achievement of these objectives has varied considerably. Policymakers' expectations of post-conflict elections are often unrealistic and even contradictory. Typically, such elections are expected to play a role in terminating civil wars, encouraging the transformation of warring armies into peaceful political parties, stimulating the development of democratic politics, choosing members of a legislature, forming a new government and conferring legitimacy upon the new political order. Post-conflict elections create difficult choices between short-term and long-term priorities, representation versus stability and domestic versus international legitimacy.
Democratisation undermines established political orders and highlights social cleavages, and so competitive elections can be deeply destabilising events. Referenda are unsuited to solving very divisive issues and are particularly inappropriate for the volatile conditions of post-conflict societies. The paper finds that:
- Elections held in highly conflictual environments tend to have negative outcomes, such as a focus on regional rather than national issues and the development of parties that serve mainly to help local elites gain power. Elections at these times are likely to be strongly opposed by potential losers and can give authority to exclusionary leaders.
- Elections can be a crucial element in rebuilding a sustainable democratic state, providing that sufficient forethought is given to their purpose, timing, and likely effects.
- A process of consultations and local-level peacebuilding in which concerns that provoked the conflict are addressed before national elections take place can assist a peaceful transition.
- Recurring dilemmas of democratisation are the tensions and choices between: competitive elections and conflict management; short and long-term electoral objectives; efficiency and inclusion in governance structures; sequenced versus simultaneous local, regional and national elections; party-based versus independent electoral administration; and local accountability versus national party politics.
Policymakers need to pay more attention to the link between technical choices and the broader goals of building stable and democratic post-conflict polities. In consideration of technical choices it is important to note that:
- While elections as part of a post-conflict peace deal cannot be postponed for more than a few years, rushed elections held in situations of insecurity will aid extremist actors.
- Systems of proportional representation may be administratively convenient but they have hidden and sometimes debilitating political costs.
- Independent electoral commissions are preferable to party-based models.
- A sequenced step from local to national elections is best for most post-conflict societies, particularly those with little prior experience of democracy.
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Reilly, B., 2006, 'Post-Conflict Elections: Uncertain Turning Points of Transition', Centre for Democratic Institutions, Australian National University, Canberra