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    In DepthThe dangers of election violence

    The dangers of election violence

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    Elections are held in nearly all countries in the contemporary world with the exception of a handful of countries, including: Brunei, China, Eritrea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and South Sudan. Today, in most countries, citizens have the opportunity to elect their leaders in national elections. Despite their aim for a peaceful transfer of power, elections held outside a consolidated democracy are often accompanied by substantial violence.

    Ethiopia, a democracy in the making for the past three decades, is preparing for what will be a memorable election: the general election of 2021. The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), under the former politician and judge Birtukan Midekssa, has been undertaking various activities according to the time table and voters have been registering to vote.

    In theory, holding elections to select leaders provides a nonviolent alternative to use of force. It should be a mechanism that allows citizens greater say over how they are governed. Yet in practice, these expectations often fail to conform to reality. Many elections, especially those in fledgling democracies, have to some degree a significant level of violence during the campaign period, on polling day or in the aftermath of voting. Electoral violence is linked to the core aims of political competition: contestation, participation, and the quest for power.

    Various literatures indicate that multiparty politics was introduced to Sub–Saharan Africa in the early 1990s. Hence, electoral competition for state power became the norm and many countries including Ethiopia have held successive elections. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, several North African countries have also held multi-party elections. While the frequency of elections and the advancements in the quality of democracy across the continent has generated a sense of optimism, this development has been closely accompanied by the much more worrying trend of election related violence. This trend not only poses a threat to peace and security on the continent but also risks undermining the long-term sustainability of the democratization process.

    Even though the ongoing violence and conflict in different parts of Ethiopia are not yet directly related to election violence, lessons from other African countries show that conflicts in election year have a substantial impact on the outcome of elections. Such conflicts have the potential to exacerbate already existing conflicts and even cause civil war between the supporters of different political groups both from the incumbent and opposition.

    In his book ‘Wars, Guns and Votes,’ Paul Collier claims that violence is predominantly a tool of the opposition or the politically weak. However, to the contrary, in their extensive study of African elections over 15 years, Strauss and Taylor found that incumbents were the primary perpetrators.

    Election violence is regarded as a sub-category of political violence primarily distinguished by its timing and motive. It is a coercive and deliberate strategy used by political actors to advance their interests or achieve specific political goals in relation to an electoral contest. It may take place in all parts of the electoral cycle: in the run-up to elections, on the day of, or post-election. Election related violence is not limited to physical violence but includes other coercive means, such as threat of violence, intimidation and harassment.

    The causes of electoral violence are multifaceted and can be divided into two broad categories. First, structural factors related to the underlying power structures prevalent in new and emerging democracies, such as informal patronage systems, poor governance, exclusionary politics, and socioeconomic uncertainties of losing political power in states where almost all power is concentrated at the center. Second is factors related to the electoral process and the electoral contest itself, such as failed or flawed elections, election fraud and weak or manipulated institutions and institutional rules governing the electoral process.

    The Ethiopian political landscape is marred with repetitive reports of violence, conflicts and displacement of citizens in almost every corner of the country, though the incumbent headed by PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has expressed its commitment to hold free, fair and democratic elections. The outcry from opposition parties over a level playing field grew, leading to two opposition parties withdrawing from the election, citing various irregularities.

    Given the incessant plea by the opposition over irregularities in the process of the election and mass killings in different parts of the country, the question that was always in the backburner “Is the country really ready to hold elections?” is picking up momentum on its journey to the front. Furthermore, those with such a view fear the conflicts will definitely affect the post-election period and the endeavors to build a democratic and inclusive political system.

    Such worries are not born out of thin air; they rather take into account the existing electoral system of the country, which is best characterized as winner takes all election type. One of the shortcomings of such a system is that it raises the possibility of violence in divided societies. 

    Additionally, a competitive election is by its very nature a confrontational process aimed at mobilizing divergent interests in society and stimulating political competition between political actors and groups. In a society where the nonviolent norm of a mature democracy is not fully developed, there is a risk that electoral contests could contribute to polarizing existing socio-economic cleavages and other divisions in society. This is especially so in societies where historically, political or socio-economic inequalities have caused violent conflicts. In such cases elections may mean the return, or a turn to violence, literatures warn.

    In societies where the structural condition of an election creates the opportunity for violence, the institutional and administrative arrangements that regulate the electoral contest can play a key role in either mitigating or instigating election related violence. For instance, a broad based and inclusive design of the electoral system that mobilizes voters across existing cleavages in society is more likely to alleviate the risk for political polarization. Conversely, systems that are more exclusive, such as the first-past-the-post and winner–takes–all systems, are more likely to encourage violent behavior, especially in divided societies.

    Election related violence may create humanitarian crisis and halt or reverse socio-economic development programs. In extreme situations, it may increase the risk of an armed conflict or civil war or can also go beyond national borders to affect neighboring countries. By displacing large populations, the violence introduces humanitarian crisis, increasing the circulation of arms as well as armed violence. Such a scenario would contribute to instability in an already volatile region like the Horn of Africa.

    One of the challenges in addressing electoral violence is that political actors systematically and purposefully implement it in an effort to influence the process and outcome of the election, involving coercive acts. It covers a range of different manifestations and outcomes, but the concept is unified by its coercive component.

    Research from the African context suggests that harassment and intimidation are more common than lethal violence. However, violence associated with elections can generate significant casualties and form part of an escalating process towards a civil war. The causes commonly encompass a combination of immediate factors tied to elections, such as the prospect of alternation in power and conditions that transform slowly such as perceived historical injustices or the institutionalization of party structures.

    For this reason, the prevention and mitigation of electoral violence requires both short-term and long-term efforts, as well as a focus that moves beyond election level factors and takes into consideration the broader social, economic and political issues.

    Electoral violence has had some dire consequences in Africa’s fledgling democracies. First, there are security implications for the continent in general and affected countries in particular. Some notable security implications include the collapse of public order, the large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), the flow of refugees and further militarization of the state and society.

    For example, reports indicate that there was a collapse of public order in the aftermath of electoral violence in the 2007 Nigerian elections in some volatile states of the Southwest. The attempt to restore stability led to the massive deployment of military and mobile policemen, which led to reports of various threats, harassment, intimidation, extortion, torture and rape. Similarly, the 2008 report by the Kenyan Red Cross shows that the situation in Kenya was worse where a total of more than 300,000 people were internally displaced as a result of post electoral violence.

    With a few exceptions, the recent record of African elections has raised concerns that in ethnically divided societies, competitive electoral processes could in fact be destabilizing by widening existing divisions and deepening divisions between winners and losers.

    The incumbent, in collaboration with various stakeholders, should therefore work tirelessly to make sure the upcoming general elections would not widen already existing sociopolitical cleavages, many warn.

    Even though the causes of the ongoing conflicts and violence in different parts of Ethiopia are multifaceted and not directly related to the election per se, researches have shown that pre-election protest is rare, and when it does occur, it is usually in an effort to pressure the government to improve the quality of the electoral process rather than to fundamentally challenge the regime. At this stage, people usually feel like they still have a chance ahead of them to change the government. However, in a post-election period, the intensity of such protests rises considerably as the public and parties are charged by the rage and frustration of no hope in sight to change things around in the near future.

    The issue of an all-inclusive national dialogue has been forwarded by many stakeholders in the past two and half years of PM Abiy’s reign. Apart from this, citizens and political actors are expressing their concerns over the deteriorating peace and security situation and are pointing towards the incumbent to restore peace and security across the country. If such demands do not receive due attention and swift measures, it might affect the post-election political environment of the country, which in turn might affect the long awaited democratization process of the country and probably its very survival.

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