Electoral Processes & Political Parties: Elections, Political Parties, Democracy & Peacebuilding

Since the early 1990s, "democratization" has become an increasingly prominent feature in post-conflict scenarios, and has often been conceived of as the main political framework for the reconstruction of a country. According to Beatrice Pouligny, "This trend is framed within an international context that is characterized by the apparent triumph, for want of any alternative, of the liberal democratic model. However, it also highlights the resurgence of the notion of Kantian democratic peace1 that informed Wilsonian idealism at the core of the League of Nations."2 The notion asserts that democracy is the best guarantee of worldwide peace. This idealism pervaded western thinking that a specific model of democracy should be promoted.
The Right to Vote in International Human Rights Law: A Selection

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Adopted December 10, 1948)
Article 21:
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Adopted December 16, 1966)
Article 25:
Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:
(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.

American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (Adopted 1948, Bogota, Colombia)
Article XX:
Every person having legal capacity is entitled to participate in the government of his country, directly or through his representatives, and to take part in popular elections, which shall be by secret ballot, and shall be honest, periodic and free.

African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Adopted June 1981, Nairobi, Kenya) Article 13.1:
Every citizen shall have the right to participate freely in the government of his country, either directly or through freely chosen representatives in accordance with the provisions of the law.

Asian Human Rights Charter, The Right to Democracy (Declared May 17, 1998, Kwangju, South Korea) Article 5.2:
The state, which claims to have the primary responsibility for the development and well-being of the people, should be humane, open and accountable. The corollary of the respect for human rights is a tolerant and pluralistic system, in which people are free to express their views and to seek to persuade others and in which the rights of minorities are respected. People must participate in public affairs, through the electoral and other decision-making and implementing processes, free from racial, religious or gender discriminations.

Council of Europe Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
Article 3:
The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.

Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Charter of Paris for a New Europe (Adopted November 21, 1990, Paris, France)
Democratic government is based on the will of the people, expressed regularly through free and fair elections.
Everyone also has the right . . . to participate in free and fair elections.

Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimensions of the OSCE (Adopted 1990, Copenhagen, Denmark)
Article 5:
They solemnly declare that among those elements of justice which are essential to the full expression of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings are the following:
(5.1) - free elections that will be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, under conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives;
(5.2) - a form of government that is representative in character, in which the executive is accountable to the elected legislature or the electorate.
Article 7:
To ensure that the will of the people serves as the basis of the authority of government, the participating States will
(7.1) - hold free elections at reasonable intervals, as established by law;
(7.2) - permit all seats in at least one chamber of the national legislature to be freely contested in a popular vote;
(7.3) - guarantee universal and equal suffrage to adult citizens.

A substantial body of literature addressing these questions now exists, and a vibrant debate has developed about the premise and merits of the "liberal peace" paradigm, which is understood as political liberalization (democracy building) and economic liberalization (instituting market economies). This approach is deeply embedded in a particular western liberal paradigm, which assumes a normative view on how the political and socio-economic world should operate.

Rather than being considered a perspective, this view is often portrayed as representative of universal values
. Critics argue that, in attempts at socio-political engineering, western actors have actually sought to recreate their political and economic systems in post-conflict societies. Founded upon these parameters, the organization of elections, along with the reconstruction of state institutions and support to civil society, constitutes what some have called the "democracy template."3
Go to Electoral Processes & Political Parties: Key debates & Implementation Challenges

The right to vote as an international human right

The "right to take part in government directly or through freely chosen representatives"4 became not only accepted as a fundamental tenet of the democracy paradigm, but as a fundamental human right.5 The right of suffrage is now enshrined in international and regional human rights instruments, within which elections are seen as "human rights events" for two reasons: "First because they give voice to the political will of the people. Secondly, because to be truly free and fair, they must be conducted in an atmosphere which is respectful of human rights."6

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Aims and functions of elections in the context of peacebuilding

In the context of post-conflict peacebuilding, elections are considered a process necessary for a political solution to violent conflict and a basis for a durable peace. Support to political parties and organization of elections can also be seen as preventive mechanisms, in particular as they facilitate a peaceful transition from an authoritarian regime to democracy or a change of government party. In these cases, however, elections can also catalyze violence and destabilize states, in particular if the conditions or results of elections are contested, which is an additional reason to support their organization.

More generally, the regular and fair organization of elections is supposed to contribute to a stable and legitimate framework that facilitates discussions about the desired political schemes for the country. In a seminal report on the subject in 2000, the UN secretary-general notes that "democracy, or lack thereof, is central to the root causes of many of todays violent conflicts, the majority of which are internal. Democratization is central to a state-building and peace-building exercise if peace is to become sustainable and post-conflict reconstruction and development is to succeed."7 This statement highlights the extent to which democracy has been increasingly perceived as a framework for peacebuilding.

Purpose of post-conflict elections

In countries emerging from conflict, elections are supposed to serve a dual purpose: to put in place a legitimate and democratic government, and to consolidate peace structured by a durable democratic system.8

To the first point, in the early 1990s, the holding of elections was often a formal element of peace accords, providing a peaceful means to determine who would hold power in a post-conflict government.9 The political transformation of former combatant groups into political parties was also generally part of the agreement. During this period, in most cases, the ruling government was in charge of organizing these elections.

Now, in an increasing number of cases, an interim government is formed that is tasked with the organization of elections with the aim of designing a new government. Another scenario is one in which the first post-war elections attempt to form a constitutional assembly. A third scenario may occur where a political vacuum exists because of the collapse of the state. In this case, the gap is partly and momentarily filled by the United Nations, as in Kosovo and Timor-Leste (and, albeit with more relative authority, in Cambodia), or by a coalition (as in Iraq). In such situations, it is seen as all the more critical to be able to transfer power to a democratically elected government. Of course, this does not include instances in which there is no peace agreement but rather one party that has won a decisive victory. Such takeovers are increasingly rare in recent internal conflicts, however, and tend not to lead to legitimate elections. More frequently, they evolve into single-party states (as in Rwanda and Uganda).

On the other hand, elections encourage the consolidation of peace structured by a durable democratic system. From that perspective, international electoral assistance not only aims at helping organize one election or a series of elections but also at building or rebuilding a sustainable democratic state that can function without direct international involvement.10

Internal and external functions of elections

Electoral processes and the activities that accompany them fulfill different internal (local) functions (both explicit and latent) that are of decisive importance from a peacebuilding perspective:11

  • The designation of representatives to a legislature, congress, or other representative forums, or to a single office such as the presidency;
  • The transformation and transfer of political practices "from bullets to ballots," encouraging all parties to rely on democratic (i.e., elections) rather than violent means to discuss the desirable political scheme for the society;
  • The legitimacy of a governing authority;
  • A social liturgy that reactivates the feeling of group membership (the act of voting attests to the individuals socialization as a citizen); and
  • A test of the capacity of the political system to construct a frame of reference. Here, the participation of political parties and electors in elections also serves to validate the legitimacy of the vote and the political system at large.
This process has important functions from an external (international) perspective. The "international community" (international organizations, donors, and NGOs) prefers to work with interlocutors who can be considered relatively representative and legitimate because they have been elected. This has become increasingly important as "the need for 'local ownership' of political and economic reforms has emerged as statebuilding orthodoxy."12 However, such processes may create some contradictions in practice, in particular when outsiders interfere too much in the designation of such representatives.13

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Political parties in post-conflict societies

In most post-conflict societies, political parties have difficulties fulfilling the obligations of their roles. They are "frequently poorly institutionalized, with limited membership, weak policy capacity and shifting bases of support; they often rely on narrow personal, regional or ethnic ties, rather than reflecting society as a whole; they are typically organizationally thin and insufficiently funded, coming to life only at election time; they seldom have coherent ideologies or policy agendas; and they are frequently unable to ensure disciplined collective action in parliament."14

Moreover, according to Roland Paris and Timothy Sisk, "Most parties do not emerge as mass-based movements with strong aggregation and articulation functions. Instead, they are often the result of elite initiatives with a focus not on aggregation and articulation but on the representative functions of parties, providing candidates for elected and government positions."15 Last but not least, in many post-conflict settings, a significant erosion of trust in political parties has occurred. These actors may have been implicated or directly involved in acts of violence, they may have dissolved the state apparatus (thus rendering services non-existent), or they may have participated in various forms of corruption. These factors make support to political parties in post-conflict situations both important and complicated.

1. Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History (Rethinking the Western Tradition), ed. Pauline Kleingeld, trans. David L. Colclasure (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006).
2. Beatrice Pouligny, "Promoting Democratic Institutions in Post-Conflict Societies: Giving Diversity a Chance," International Peacekeeping 7, no. 3 (2000): 17.
3. Ibid.
4. United Nations (UN), Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21.1.
5. Pouligny, "Promoting Democratic Institutions in Post-Conflict Societies," 18.
6. Commission of the European Communities, Communication from the Commission.
7. "Support by the United Nations System of the Efforts of Governments to Promote and Consolidate New or Restored Democracies," UN Doc. A/55/489(2000), sec. 30.
8. Pouligny, "Promoting Democratic Institutions in Post-Conflict Societies," 18.
9. Support by the United Nations System, sec. 22.
10.Krishna Kumar, ed., Postconflict Elections, Democratization and International Assistance (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998), 5; Reilly, Electoral Assistance and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: What Lessons Have Been Learned? 6.
11.Pouligny, "Promoting Democratic Institutions in Post-Conflict Societies," 21.
12.Roland Paris and Timothy D. Sisk, Managing Contradictions: The Inherent Dilemmas of Postwar Statebuilding (New York: International Peace Academy, 2007), 4.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid., 2.
15. Ibid., 4.

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