In September 2007, few outside the country noticed the successful completion of national elections in Sierra Leone. Yet they were landmark polls, accepted as credible and transparent and a major step in the consolidation of peace and stability.
Elections held in conflict or post-conflict environments are a critical milestone in the transition from war. They not only determine the composition of the governmental authority, they also establish democratic governance and help resolve power struggles at the root of the conflict.
Transitional elections can be hazardous and sometimes even counter-productive. Where the peace process is still fragile and electoral institutions and practices are not yet part of the political culture, social tensions can resurface during elections and explode into violence.
For this reason, critics often argue that elections can be divisive and should not be included as part of a post-conflict transition. However, whether elections contribute to successful transitions depends on various factors.
Integrating elections into a comprehensive peace process
- For successful transitions, such as those in Mozambique and El Salvador in 1994, elections should be integrated within a comprehensive package that deals with the different elements of the conflict.
- Elections, as isolated events, should not be considered miracle solutions for conflict resolution.
- To be effective, elections must respond to 'rules of the game' that are negotiated between the parties. In East Timor, for example, the laws and regulations that formed the basis for transitional elections in 2001 and 2002 resulted from extensive negotiations between different groups, even though the elections were organised by the United Nations.
- Negotiation helps in the acceptance of the results, which is particularly important in post-conflict environments.
The electoral process should also be complemented by other developments, both before and after the polling. Elections attract great attention, but if the other elements within the peace agreement are not effectively handled, the election will not have a positive impact. For example, the 1996 polls in Sierra Leone were held without proper disarmament and a year later the elected government was overthrown and the war reignited.
Negotiating electoral modalities
Often, the specific electoral modalities (systems, rules, standards, and procedures) chosen will decide whether or not elections help resolve power conflict(s). Among other things, elections will need to be inclusive – which is one of the reasons why proportional representation is often the preferred choice for a post-settlement electoral system – and well understood by all. Also, the eligibility criteria for voters and candidates and the nature of electoral authorities are critical.
Various political, technical and security factors influence the timing of an electoral process. Furthermore, in transitional situations, the process usually starts from nothing. Such elections need to be carefully prepared or the country may risk falling into post-election violence.
Elections have been effective in conflict resolution and prevention. However, great care must be given to integrating the electoral process into a wider, comprehensive peace process for elections to be helpful in post-conflict transition.
Electoral Assistance Division, UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo