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Why Are So Many Post-Conflict Electoral Processes Trapped by Spoilers?

Arsène Brice Bado
Remnants of the war in Liberia. Photo by Eduardo Fonseca Arraes, via Flickr. Creative Commons.

[caption id="attachment_8766" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Remnants in Freetown of the Sierra Leone Civil War. That war's peace process had to deal with serious spoilers in its 1996 and 2002 elections. Photo by Eduardo Fonseca Arraes, via Flickr. Creative Commons.[/caption]

Just a few weeks before the long-awaited post-conflict elections in the Central African Republic, armed fighting resumed, making it impossible to hold the elections on October 18th as initially scheduled. This scenario is very common in post-conflict electoral processes: election dates are often postponed due to logistical problems and an unwillingness to participate by groups that do not feel they have a stake in the success of the elections.1 This has been the case in most of the post-conflict elections in Africa, as well as in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.2

In order to reduce the effect of spoilers in a post-conflict electoral process, it is of major importance to clearly identify the players who matter the most and whose actions can significantly affect the process. Since a post-conflict electoral process is part of the larger peace process, it should include the main actors of the conflict in some way or another. The proactive integration of major actors formerly involved in the conflict into the electoral process, alongside the usual electoral stakeholders such as political parties, reduces the threat of spoilers to the electoral process. When major parties to the conflict have been persuaded to participate actively in the electoral process, whether or not they are willing to compete for elective office, their participation helps to foster a sense of ownership of the electoral process and to strengthen the sense of compromise-building among relevant participants. It provides an opportunity for participants to inscribe their actions into a political and institutional framework, moving them away from the extra-institutional framework that is war. Moreover, collaboration during the post-conflict electoral process may better prepare candidates to face election outcomes and may also open pathways to future collaboration after the elections; groups that were former enemies in wartime may become political rivals in peacetime.

Unlike elections in peacetime, post-conflict elections tend to encompass unusual sets of actors whose identities vary across cases. During routine elections in peaceful settings, political parties are the primary actors who compete for votes with the support of the media and other interest groups. In post-conflict settings however, major electoral stakeholders include a wider variety of actors. For example, stakeholders may include former armed groups that have, successfully or not, been transformed into political parties; ex-combatants and other actors in the security sector; civil society organizations; refugees and internally displaced persons; internal and external sponsors of the former warring parties; and so on.

It is critical to identify players who matter the most in each unique post-conflict setting. For example, in its endeavor to minimize the threat posed by eventual spoilers during the Liberian post-conflict election in 1997, the Carter Center "urged neighboring states to cut economic links that allowed warring factions to obtain arms and other resources. It also encouraged the international community to implement effective sanctions on firms and individuals who benefited from and sustained such links."3 Likewise, in preparation for the 2002 post-conflict election in Sierra Leone, several organizations involved in the support of the electoral process called upon the international community to put pressure on the neighboring regime of Charles Taylor in Liberia whose support to the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP) undermined the post-conflict electoral process.4

In addition to identifying and including all relevant actors in the post-conflict electoral process, it is also of great importance to assess their readiness for the election, in order to adjust the nature and degree of electoral support provided to each category of actors in each specific context. Pre-election assessment missions are a common practice for all of the major electoral assistance providers.5 However, their assessments tend to focus more on institutional procedures than on electoral stakeholders.6

By contrast, I argue that the assessment of the risks of violence should not be restricted to threats that are directly related to the electoral processes and procedures, but also to the larger sociopolitical situation and to the entire peace process, which post-conflict elections are supposed to strengthen. Assessing post-conflict electoral processes in the context of a broader peace process allows a better identification and integration of actors whose actions can affect positively or negatively the post-conflict electoral process.

In short, though peace processes and post-conflict electoral processes are distinct, they should not be separated. Instead, they should be perceived and analyzed as a continuum, or as two stages of the same process. That is why relevant actors in the peace process may also be relevant post-conflict electoral stakeholders. This approach has a great deal of potential to pacify the electoral process, as in Central African Republic or other war-torn societies.

1: Khadigala, G. (2010). Theory, Causes and Consequences of Election-Related Conflict. In E. A. Symposium (Ed.), Preventing and Managing Violent Election-Related Conflicts in Africa: Exploring Good Practices (pp. 5-6). Rosebank, South Africa: EISA.
2: See Collier, P. (2010). Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (First Harper Perennial ed.). New York: Harper Perennial; Sisk, T. D., & Reynolds, A. (1998). Elections and conflict management in Africa. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press; Schwarzmantel, J. J. (2011). Democracy and political violence. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; UNDP. (2011). Understanding Electoral Violence in Asia. New York: UNDP.
3: The Carter Center. (1997). Observing the 1997 Special Elections Process in Liberia. Atlanta: The Carter Center, p.21.
4: Bangura, J. J., & Mustapha, M. (2010). Sierra Leone beyond the Lomé Peace Accord (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan; Bellows, J., & Miguel, E. (2009). War and local collective action in Sierra Leone. Journal of Public Economics, 93(11–12), pp.1144-1157; Harris, D. (2012). Civil War and democracy in West Africa : conflict resolution, elections and justice in Sierra Leone and Liberia. New York: I .B. Tauris.
5: European Commission, UNDP, & International IDEA. (2011). Workshop on Effective Electoral Assistance. Participants' Guidebook. Brussels: UNDP.
6: Kammerud, L. (2012). "An Integrated Approach to Elections and Conflict." IFES White Paper. Washington, DC: IFES, p.6.

Arsène Brice Bado, a Southern Voices Network Scholar at the Wilson Center, is an associate researcher at CERAP in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. He was a visiting assistant in research at Yale University during the academic year 2014-2015. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Laval University in Canada. His doctoral research focuses on foreign electoral assistance in post-civil conflict societies.

About the Author

Arsène Brice Bado

Arsène Brice Bado

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Associate researcher, CERAP
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The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more