Donor support for post-conflict elections

Question

What does recent literature tell us about lessons for donors in supporting elections in post-conflict developing countries when the precedent for a peaceful transition of power is either not well entrenched, or non-existent?

Summary

Well-timed elections can contribute to conflict resolution and help to consolidate a peace agreement or power-sharing deal among elites. But elections also have the potential to reignite hostilities. This report examines the following key factors, and how they have played out in recent post-conflict elections in Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Nepal:

  • The content and inclusiveness of pre-election dialogue among former combatants: The importance of quickly securing a peace agreement has to be balanced with the need to ensure the talks are as comprehensive and inclusive as possible.
  • The timing of elections: The impact of early elections on post-conflict stability is the subject of sharp debate. Some argue that early elections facilitate peace agreements, hasten democratisation, and ensure post-conflict stability; others suggest they undermine genuine democracy and spark renewed fighting.
  • The sequencing of elections: Some authors argue that national elections should be carried out before subnational elections because their higher profile is more likely to attract international support, or because they encourage the creation of national rather than regional political parties. Others recommend starting at the sub-national level to give political parties time to organise themselves, build up a local support base, and gain political experience. However, Brancati and Snyder (2012) find that subnational elections are more likely than national elections to spark renewed warfare following a conflict over regional autonomy or independence, and when control over the subnational legislature is paramount. Still others see simultaneous national and local elections as the best option, to facilitate the mutual dependence of regional and national leaders.
  • The strength of electoral and security institutions: The risk of elections resulting in tensions or renewed conflict is much greater in the absence of strong electoral and state institutions.
  • The choice of electoral system: While there is no outright consensus on the most appropriate system for post-conflict environments, elections conducted under the auspices of the United Nations have almost always favoured proportional representation.
  • The independence and conduct of the electoral administration and observers: There is broad agreement that independent and permanent electoral management bodies represent best practice in post-conflict electoral administration. The presence of international observers can provide a conducive environment for independent, free and fair elections. However, it is better for international observers to refuse to participate than to be complicit in an observation process that tells less than the full truth about an election.

Suggested citation

Laws, E. (2017). Donor support for post-conflict elections (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.