Read our key findings on the opportunities and risks posed by post-conflict elections and referendums below.
Elections and referendums taking place after armed conflict play a crucial role in the establishment of a new representative political order. The holding of free and fair elections has become a central aim of many peace-making and state-building processes. Elections are sometimes considered a ‘final step’ in a period of transitional governance after conflict, bestowing the winning parties with a legitimate mandate to govern and setting the country on the equally difficult path of consolidation of the post-conflict order. Referendums can be used to create a new state, or to amend constitutions. We have studied the opportunities and risks posed by post-conflict elections and referendums, including by exploring the interlinkages between electoral process and constitution-building, with our partner International IDEA.
Elections in post-conflict countries introduce a high degree of uncertainty to the political settlement process. Trust between conflict parties is rarely high, limiting the level of uncertainty that is perceived as acceptable. Over time, trust between conflict parties may grow, opening up opportunities to make electoral systems more representative and inclusive (Ellis 2018).
Electoral system design matters. The same vote tally can produce different electoral outcomes depending on the chosen electoral system. Most actors involved in organising post-conflict elections are neither likely to be familiar with electoral system design issues, nor to be natural mathematicians. The learning curve for all involved – including the representatives of the international community – in this area may be very steep, with accompanying scope for ‘conventional wisdom’ which turns out not to work (Ellis 2018; 2020).
At the same time, the choice of method to translate votes into seats is thus not a purely technical exercise, but a deeply political decision. All electoral systems contain political incentives. Electoral system design needs to be guided by an appreciation of the political objectives of the electoral stakeholders, including those with significant vested interests or even no interest in the success of the electoral process.
Electoral systems can accommodate a wide range of political goals, including a desire to ensure geographical, gender, or identity representation, or to create incentives for coalition-building (Ellis 2018).
Most fundamentally, electoral system design involves deciding whether the chosen system should rest on majoritarian principles, the principle of proportionality, or a combination of the two. In majoritarian or “winner-takes-all” systems, the candidate who receives the most votes wins, while proportional systems seek a higher degree of congruence between proportion of votes gained by each party and the proportion of seats in representative institutions that it assumes (Ellis 2018).
In recent history, proportional representation electoral systems have been the most popular, followed by systems combining majoritarian and representative principles, with the pure majoritarian systems being the least popular. Some interesting combinations of proportional and majoritarian principles are found, for example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Madagascar, where candidates were elected using either of the systems depending on the geographic location of the candidates’ constituencies (Ellis 2018).
Electoral system design depends on context. Pre-existing constitutions or court decisions may dictate a certain path. The history and experience of democracy before and during an armed conflict may similarly influence system choice, as could the involvement or expectations of the international community when it supports the electoral process. Practical considerations, such as the security situation in the country, may further limit the available options (Ellis 2020).
Once an electoral system has been chosen, there are numerous implementation challenges. Institutions need to be equipped with sufficient financial and human resources and technical expertise. The electoral management body, such as an electoral commission, in particular needs to be granted a strong mandate, adequate resources, and independence. Institutions involved in organising the elections also need to be able to deal with last minute changes that often occur in politically contested elections (Ellis 2020).
These are some of the areas that those seeking to support post-conflict elections should consider:
- Better understanding the interplay of political and technical dimensions of elections
- Finding ways to deal with the election-model ‘status quo bias’ of office holders
- Providing ‘politically accessible’ and ‘contextually sensitive’ electoral design expertise
- Securing funding and addressing electoral technical challenges early in the process
- Building effective relationships between electoral stakeholders
- Ensuring context-specific electoral modelling – there are no one-size-fits-all models
- Employing creativity in electoral design, in particular in marrying individual one-person-one-vote considerations with group accommodation mechanisms
- Building or remedying wider institutional systems and capabilities
- Preparing for potential last-minute changes, born of political contingencies” (Ellis 2020:2)
Elections & constitution-building
Electoral and constitution-building processes are intertwined as two elements of the overall political settlement process, and crucial elements in the establishment of a new, legitimate political order. Those concerned with the design and structuring of transitional political processes should understand the ways in which electoral and constitutional processes interact in order to maximize the benefits, and minimize the risks (Underwood, Bisarya and Zulueta-Fülscher, 2017:5).
The timing and sequencing of elections in relation to constitution-building in the political settlement process are driven largely by the function of elections (often the legitimation of a decision-making body), as well as by the domestic and international political context (Underwood, Bisarya and Zulueta-Fülscher, 2017:5).
While elections and referendums can bring inclusivity and legitimacy to post-conflict constitution-building, their success depends on a number of factors, including the overall state of the institutional framework (and the extent to which the rule of law might be followed) and their design and general context: poorly designed or badly timed elections/referendums may have significant negative consequences (Underwood, Bisarya and Zulueta-Fülscher, 2017:5).
An underlying agreement between the key political actors is an essential pre-requisite for the successful holding of elections and referendums in a post-conflict context but such an agreement might be the result of an incremental process rather than a one-off agreement. In both cases, elections would ideally play a supporting role regarding the political settlement process but might challenge the political settlement by bringing new majorities to the fore that might not abide by what has previously been agreed (Underwood, Bisarya and Zulueta-Fülscher, 2017:5).
There are myriad ways in which electoral and constitution-building processes positively interact. These include the legitimation of a constituent assembly through elections, the legitimation of the constitution through referendum, the election of separate bodies to focus on governing and constitution-making, and constraining the power of elites within the parameters of popular will (Underwood, Bisarya and Zulueta-Fülscher, 2017:6).
However, the relationship between electoral and constitution-building processes can also have negative consequences. These may include:
- Increasing instability through polarization during election/referendum campaigns and/or through disputes over election results
- The eschewal of deliberation and negotiation in favour of majoritarian appeal to referendums or in favour of identity-based political parties
- Potential instability (in particular in low-security environments, creating competing legitimacies in the scenario of two parallel elected bodies)
- The difficulty of finding meaningful representation in contexts where political party structures are weak (Underwood, Bisarya and Zulueta-Fülscher, 2017:6)
International assistance with electoral, constitution-building and peace processes often involves three different epistemological communities. More coordination is needed between these three communities that should envision themselves contributing collectively to an overarching process of political settlement and the (re-)establishment and legitimation of a stable political order (Underwood, Bisarya and Zulueta-Fülscher, 2017:6).
The use of referendums in processes of constitution-building in (post-)conflict countries has markedly increased in recent decades. ‘Constitutive referendums’ are used to create new states and/or new constitutions (such as in South Sudan in 2011). ‘Contained constitutional referendums’ are used to amend constitutions (Rwanda in 2015) (Tierney 2018).
Each type of referendums poses significant challenges, including the need to define who is eligible to cast a vote in contexts where ethnicity plays a divisive role in politics. A referendum posits the idea of ‘the people’ speaking and determining; if the idea of ‘the people’ is deeply contested, the referendum may in fact exacerbate existing tensions Determining the territory/territories in which a vote is to be conducted can be equally contentious (Tierney 2018).
Peace negotiations should only opt for a referendum with a clear idea of what a referendum does and the crucial role it can play in legitimizing a constitution, underpinning its sovereignty and helping to frame constitutional identity. A referendum can also have the converse effect, where the result is not in favour (Tierney 2018).