Elections are fundamental to democracy as they enable citizens to participate in the political process. However, the road to free and fair elections is fraught with challenges in many parts of the world, including instability and violence. Many countries, including those within the Commonwealth, have grappled with electoral violence and introduced strategies to prevent its occurrence. We explore trends in electoral violence across the Commonwealth and elsewhere, drawing collective lessons and identifying effective strategies to mitigate its prevalence.
Causes of electoral violence
A lack of transparency around elections is a major driver of electoral violence, particularly when results are disputed. This occurred in Zimbabwe in 2008 when the opposition candidate accused the incumbent president of rigging the election. The contested results led to protests, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries.[i] Allegations of vote rigging contributed to Côte d’Ivoire’s political crisis in 2010-2011. Both frontrunners claimed victory, leading to violence between their supporters.[ii]
In some instances, opposing parties resort to violence as a means of achieving desired political outcomes. Politicians sometimes deploy individuals to intimidate voters at polling booths. For instance, during the 2022 national elections in the Philippines, reports emerged of violence being used by armed militia at voting booths.[iii] At times, politicians incite violence among their supporters. For example, clashes between rival political supporters were reported during the 2015 elections in Guinea.[iv]
Ethnic tensions are often a major source of electoral violence, especially where politicians employ inflammatory ethnic language to draw support from a particular ethnic group. There were several reported incidents of ethnic violence during the 2020 elections in Côte d’Ivoire, where incendiary ethnic rhetoric was used to fuel tensions. The violence resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and caused significant displacement along ethnic lines.[v] Sierra Leone has witnessed a gradual rise in electoral violence since 2014 which is thought to be linked to higher rates of ethnic rhetoric used during campaigns.[vi] Ethnic tensions can be exacerbated in times of socioeconomic uncertainty. Chinese Indonesians were systematically targeted during Indonesia’s 1998 elections, held at the time of the Asian economic crisis. Politicians used inflammatory language to exacerbate resentment towards Chinese communities for their perceived wealth.[vii]
Relatedly, poverty and socioeconomic inequality can be a trigger for violence during elections. Inequitable distribution of resources can lead to feelings of marginalisation and resentment towards the ruling party, leading to violent protests. Such environments are also vulnerable to electoral fraud because individuals will be more receptive to vote buying and accepting payment in exchange for enacting violence at polling booths. Socioeconomic causes of electoral violence have been brought into sharp focus in the past year, as the rising cost of living has underpinned recent elections and led to public dissent. Bangladesh recently witnessed deadly clashes between police and demonstrators who were angry about the rising cost of living.[viii]
Non-state actors employ violence during elections to further their agenda. For instance, Taliban carried out a series of attacks during Pakistan’s 2018 elections.[ix] Moreover, in Papua New Guinea, clans have been known to control polling booths and intimidate election officials to influence the outcome.[x] Nigeria is also susceptible to threats from non-state armed insurgents, including Boko Haram, farmers, and Biafra separatists, who resort to violence and street clashes during elections.[xi]
Foreign intervention can also provoke electoral violence. In recent years, Russia has been particularly active in international electoral interference. Russia has been known to deploy forces from its paramilitary organisation, Wagner, to interfere with elections in various sub-Saharan countries, such as the Central African Republic. Russia, China, and Iran are known to have intervened in elections elsewhere. For example, they provided financial and technical support to Maduro's government during the 2018 Venezuelan election campaign.[xii]
Strategies used to prevent electoral violence
Several Commonwealth countries have introduced policies to prevent the occurrence of electoral violence, some of which have been highly effective. One approach has been to increase electoral transparency. Kenya has experienced a significant decline in electoral violence since its 2007/2008 elections, where more than 1,000 lost their lives in part due to violent protests over voter fraud. In recent elections, the Kenyan government has taken steps to enhance transparency by uploading copies of polling station results online, thereby increasing access to raw data and reducing the risk of disinformation.[xiii] Similarly, during the 2023 elections in Nigeria, which were seen as relatively peaceful compared to previous elections,[xiv] authorities took steps to prevent malpractice. The National Electoral Commission utilized technology to avert fraud, resulting in greater voter confidence.[xv]
Some countries have also mobilised security forces to manage non-state armed groups during election periods, leading to a reduction in violence. For example, Karachi in Pakistan, which typically experiences high levels of electoral violence, saw limited upheaval during the 2018 election cycle due to government operations against criminal actors.[xvi] However, it is crucial that these security forces remain politically neutral.
Deploying trained staff for security at polling sites has been effective in some countries. The Kenyan government deployed trained election observers to polling stations to monitor the transparency of the electoral process, boosting trust among the public.[xvii]
Governments have also engaged politicians and encouraged them to campaign peacefully, urging them to avoid using incendiary ethnic language. In Kenya’s recent elections, the two frontrunners focused on economic and social policies in their campaigning, rather than exploiting ethnic divides.[xviii] Similarly, the Nigerian government required all candidates to sign a pledge to campaign peacefully ahead of the 2023 elections.[xix] Ghana, known for its relatively stable and peaceful transitions of power, engages politicians directly and encourages them to raise concerns with policymakers, which allows for peaceful expression of grievances.[xx]
International organisations have played a role in promoting peaceful elections in Sierra Leone by providing training to different sectors involved in the electoral process, including electoral commissions, data analysts, and security forces.[xxi] International stakeholders also facilitated forums between human rights advocates and security forces ahead of elections in Kenya. These forums enabled a unified, human rights-based approach to preventing violence.[xxii]
Moreover, the United Nations has collaborated with grassroots organizations to conduct civic education forums in Kenya, educating local communities on how to make informed voting decisions and access voting. Community dialogues have also been held in hotspots for ethnic tensions ahead of Kenyan elections, promoting the peaceful communication of grievances.[xxiii]
Policy Recommendations: Lessons from the Commonwealth
Outlined below are policy recommendations based on effective strategies implemented by Commonwealth countries to prevent electoral violence.
● Enhance Election Transparency: To prevent protests over disputed results and the spread of disinformation, it is crucial to ensure transparency in elections. Countries can take measures such as making results easily accessible to the public through and implementing safeguards to prevent electoral fraud.
● Mobilise security forces: Deploying security forces to regions that are at risk of electoral violence due to the presence of non-state armed groups can be an effective strategy. It is essential to ensure that security forces receive adequate training in managing electoral violence. Security personnel should be trained to remain politically neutral and adopt a human rights-based approach.
● Deploy electoral staff: Governments should ensure that adequately trained staff are deployed to voting stations to oversee elections, instil public confidence in electoral legitimacy, and monitor and address any incidents of violence.
● Engage politicians: Governments should actively engage politicians prior to elections, urging them to campaign peacefully and avoid the use of ethnic rhetoric. It is crucial to encourage politicians to promote peaceful campaigns and refrain from inciting violence.
● Organise forums: International stakeholders, as well as local governments, should facilitate dialogues at various levels of society to prevent electoral violence. For example, stakeholders should organise cross-sectoral forums between security forces and grassroots organisations to formulate a unified, rights-based approach to mitigating and managing electoral violence. Forums should also be held in local communities that are vulnerable to electoral violence to advance civic education and encourage peaceful communication of grievances.
[i]Tiseke Kasambala, ‘“Bullets for Each of You”’, Human Rights Watch, 9 June 2008, https://www.hrw.org/report/2008/06/09/bullets-each-you/state-sponsored-violence-zimbabwes-march-29-elections. [ii]Jennifer G. Cooke, ‘The Election Crisis in Côte d’Ivoire’, 12 July 2010, https://www.csis.org/analysis/election-crisis-cote-divoire. [iii]‘Philippines: Election-Related Violence Leaves 33 Dead’, accessed 20 April 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/5/14/philippines-election-related-violence-leaves-33-dead. [iv]‘Guinea: Parties Should Show Restraint’, Human Rights Watch (blog), 15 October 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/10/15/guinea-parties-should-show-restraint. [v]AfricaNews, ‘Côte d’Ivoire: Election Tensions Erupt in Fatal Ethnic Clashes’, Africanews, 19 October 2020, https://www.africanews.com/2020/10/19/cote-d-ivoire-election-tensions-erupt-in-fatal-ethnic-clashes/. [vi]Kars de Bruijne, ‘When Emerging Democracies Breed Violence: Sierra Leone 20 Years after the Civil War’, ACLED (blog), 16 December 2020, https://acleddata.com/2020/12/16/when-emerging-democracies-breed-violence-sierra-leone-20-years-after-the-civil-war/. [vii]‘Twenty Years on, Victims of 1998 Indonesia Violence Still Seek Justice’, Reuters, 20 May 2018, sec. APAC, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indonesia-riots-anniversary-idUSKCN1IL04C. [viii]Reuters, ‘White House Calls on Bangladesh to Investigate Reports of Pre-Election Violence’, 9 December 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/white-house-calls-bangladesh-investigate-reports-pre-election-violence-2022-12-09/. [ix]Madeleine Ngo, ‘Pakistan’s Elections Turn Deadly: 31 People Killed in a Bombing near a Polling Station’, Vox, 25 July 2018, https://www.vox.com/world/2018/7/25/17611990/pakistan-2018-election-suicide-bombing-vote. [x]‘Why Are Papua New Guinea’s Elections Plagued with Problems?’, United States Institute of Peace, accessed 11 April 2023, https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/01/why-are-papua-new-guineas-elections-plagued-problems. [xi]International Crisis Group (ICG), ‘Mitigating Risks of Violence in Nigeria’s 2023 Elections’, 10 February 2023, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/nigeria/311-mitigating-risks-violence-nigerias-2023-elections. [xii]Moises Rendon and Claudia Fernandez, ‘The Fabulous Five: How Foreign Actors Prop up the Maduro Regime in Venezuela’, 19 October 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/fabulous-five-how-foreign-actors-prop-maduro-regime-venezuela. [xiii]‘Three Early Lessons from Kenya’s Elections’, United States Institute of Peace, 18 August 2023, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/08/three-early-lessons-kenyas-elections. [xiv]Imrana Buba, ‘How Nigeria Avoided Organised Violence during the 2023 Elections’, African Arguments (blog), 6 April 2023, https://africanarguments.org/2023/04/how-nigeria-avoided-organized-violence-during-the-2023-elections/. [xv]International Crisis Group (ICG), ‘Mitigating Risks of Violence in Nigeria’s 2023 Elections’. [xvi]‘Exposure to Violence and Voting in Karachi, Pakistan’, United States Institute of Peace, accessed 11 April 2023, https://www.usip.org/publications/2019/06/exposure-violence-and-voting-karachi-pakistan. [xvii]OHCHR, ‘Partnerships and Training Helped Prevent Election Violence’, 24 March 2023, https://www.ohchr.org/en/stories/2023/03/partnerships-and-training-helped-prevent-election-violence. [xviii]‘Kenya Elections 2022: Why the Ethnic Factor May Be Losing Its Power’, BBC News, 20 July 2022, sec. Africa, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-62215613. [xix]International Crisis Group (ICG), ‘Mitigating Risks of Violence in Nigeria’s 2023 Elections’. [xx]Dorina A Bekoe and Stephanie M Burchard, ‘Robust Electoral Violence Prevention: An Example from Ghana’, African Affairs 120, no. 481 (1 October 2021): 543–67, https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/adab028. [xxi]‘Sierra Leone Senior Security Officers Benefit from Election Security Training | United Nations Development Programme’, UNDP, accessed 12 April 2023, https://www.undp.org/sierra-leone/news/sierra-leone-senior-security-officers-benefit-election-security-training. [xxii]OHCHR, ‘Partnerships and Training Helped Prevent Election Violence’. [xxiii]‘Turning the Tide Program - Preventing Election Violence in Kenya’, Africa Center for Nonviolence & Sustainable Impact (blog), 13 January 2023, https://afrinov.org/?p=3021.