Strategies to prevent and manage electoral violence


By Gray Kalindekafe:


Election is an irreducible feature of democratic governance. Democracy here is defined as a social system of administrating a nation-state where political parties and independent candidates compete for elective positions in a free and fair election atmosphere.

It is where citizens are legally empowered to choose those who will run the affairs of the state in a given period.


Such elections are supposed to be competitive, free and fair both substantively and procedurally; and in which the ability of the elected representatives to exercise decision-making power is subject to the rule of law.

Usually it is moderated by a constitution that emphasises the protection of the rights and freedoms of individuals, which places constraints on the leaders and on the extent to which the will of the majority can be exercised against the rights of minorities.

Despite the legal framework that guides the electoral process, there is usually a contest between those who want to acquire power and those who are likely to lose power.


A cursory look at democratic history of a number of African countries reveals electoral-cum-political violence that sometimes threatens the countries to their very foundation.

This development in part has made democratic consolidation somehow problematic and on the other hand, it has made it difficult for most African States to be referred to as a democratic even though operators vehemently lay claim to it.

The electoral process in many of Africa’s ‘new’ democracies including Malawi has been characterised by violence.

Recent man if es tat ions of electoral violence have assumed an unprecedented magnitude and changing form and character, with negative implications for democratic stability and consolidation.

It can be argued that rising electoral violence in Africa including Malawi is closely connected with the neo-patrimonial character of the African states, the nature of contestation for power, the weak institutionalisation of democratic architectures, including political parties and election management bodies.

This is complicated by the absence or paucity of democrats, with democratic mindset, to play the game of politics according to established rules.

Worse still, avenues for democratic redress, including the Judiciary and civil society are also deeply implicated in the deepening contradictions of the state (for Judiciary with the exception of Malawi and a few African states where the Judiciary has become the “protector and defender of our nascent democracy).

The result is the de-institutionalisation of the people in the democratisation process. Electoral violence is thus a major source of democratic instability with palpable threats of deconsolidation. These contradictions will have to be redressed to tame the monster.

The high incidences of political and electoral violence in Malawi in particular and Africa in general, can also be explained by cultural factors. Here, there is a political culture of thuggery that generally predisposes actors to engage in violence and intimidation during political contests.

Within the context of the existing political system, the decay of political and social systems results into violence becoming the tool for settling political contests and managing political conflicts.

There is also a structural explanation to violence. In this regard, the structures of society and politics are organised in such a way as to generate conflicts, even though there may not be physical violence.

But if the structural gaps are not addressed, there is likely to be actual physical violence. It is within this school of thought that the selective application of the law and the lack of an even electoral playing field fall.

Political and electoral violence are pernicious vices that continue to afflict most African states including Malawi. It is a truism that these two are mother and baby: with political violence being the umbrella under which electoral violence shields itself.

The motivation behind these two categories of violence is eminently political; it is the unfair acquisition of political advantage by one individual or group or individuals over another.

Dr Makumi Mwagiru, Director of the Centre for Conflict Research, in his paper “Political and Election Violence” in Kenya, defines political violence as “violence over political competition…At its heart; political violence is concerned with the issue of the legitimacy of government. It removes or fractures political competition, and is aimed at removing or cowering political dissent”.

Electoral violence is that political violence that aims at the electoral process. It is geared towards winning political competition or power through violence, subverting the ends of the electoral and democratic process as Dr Mwagiru notes: “Its tool of trade in the intimidation and disempowerment of political opponents. Election violence takes place not just at election time, but in periods leading to elections, during the elections themselves, and in the period immediately following elections such as during the counting of ballots.”

Electoral violence is a sub-category of political violence, which deserves special consideration from the policy community.

Indeed, electoral violence has received increasing international attention in recent years due to the devastating effects of outbreaks of violence in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and even here in Malawi.

The notion of violence-free elections is encapsulated in the term ‘free and fair’ elections, serving as a benchmark for determining the legitimacy of elections.

Efforts by local and international actors include electoral assistance, peacekeeping and monitoring missions, civic and voter education.

Yet, understanding of the consequences of specific strategies and how their returns can be maximised remains limited. The main conclusion of this policy brief points to a re-evaluation of conflict management and preventive strategies and highlights five recommendations.

Firstly, victims need to be better taken into account and cared for.

Secondly, monitoring and civic education are activities that need to be carried out on a long-term basis.

Thirdly, conflict-mitigation measures should be included in the electoral process design.

Fourthly, to ensure security, a balance between deterrence and confidence building has to be found.

Lastly, to improve peace-building around election times, the multiple actors involved need to coordinate activities to avoid overlap and to identify policy gaps.

Analysis for policy needs to take into account the social divisions and potential conflict lines in society. If electoral violence is not addressed it can have longstanding consequences for social cohesion and the legitimacy of democracy.

Elections are key elements of democratic processes. They provide for transparent and peaceful change of government and distribution of power.

For this reason, a strong emphasis on democratisation as a means to durable peace emerged among international policy circles in the early 1990s.

The not ion of supporting peace-building in tandem with democratisation developed as a consequence of the recognition that political repression and discrimination often is the very reason groups took to arms in the first place.

Hence, democratisation does not only open up for manifestations of political rights, but is also seen as a response to addressing the root causes of conflict. Support to strengthen institutional capacity to promote democratic norms and to ensure democratic rule of law is now seen as crucial for peace-building.

Elect ions and democracy promotion have thus become central strategies to build peace in countries shattered by violent conflict.

Yet experiences and recent research suggest that democratisation in transitional or war-torn countries, and elections in particular, can become a hindrance rather than a solution to peace-building.

In fact, elections can generate conflicts, rather than solving them. For several reasons, violence can be an attractive option to influence the electoral process and outcome.

In transitional democracies, incumbents are often manipulating or believed to be tampering with the electoral processes. The opposition parties also have incentives to further their strength through the use of violence.

Spoiler groups’ intent on disrupting the election may use violence to prevent the election from taking place or to make sure that the election outcome is declared invalid. Such violence is potentially damaging for democratic processes and can undermine progress towards democratisation.

Electoral violence beyond direct effects such as hindering people from casting their vote and preventing candidates from participating in the election can have long-term effects of causing disillusionment and frustration with politics.

The absence or presence of political violence during an electoral process is also central to determining the legitimacy of an election. From a conflict prevention perspective, low intensity or localised violence can serve as a ‘training ground’ for more large-scale violence campaigns including civil war.

Therefore, managing election-related violence, is important in the long-term effort to build a strong, democratic and peaceful society, based on the rule of law, accountability and transparency.

A number of strategies are used to manage and prevent electoral violence. These strategies are to a varying degree applied by different actors.

The actors involved in managing and preventing electoral violence include: firstly, local and international monitoring and observer missions; and secondly, national, regional and local dispute resolution and mediation missions.

The bodies involved in these activities range from public authorities, political parties, an electoral commission, religious organisations, civil society, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and traditional authorities such as chiefs or clan leaders.

Five main types of strategies can be identified. First, the presence of monitors can be instrumental in preventing electoral violence through naming and shaming mechanisms and by creating awareness of tensions building up.

Second, mediation can be carried out in high-tension situations to solve an ongoing election-related dispute.

Third, the legal framework and institutional design provides the basis for combating impunity and for creating conditions discouraging violence.

Fourth, law enforcement highlights the deterring function of security forces.

Fifth, voter-focused strategies emphasise the importance of long-term prevention through the cultivation of democratic norms and tolerance in society at large.

However, do not forget the victims of violence, and how violence is perceived – whether it is politically motivated or not. It varies, depending on where you sit and how you are affected.

An argument sometimes invoked in relation to violence around election times is that it is in fact not at all related to the election but instead due to common criminal activities.

However, if people believe that violence is politically motivated, it will have political consequences.

When politicians and political activists are targeted by violence, the consequence may be that certain political campaigns do not reach all areas in each electoral district and in the country. This constrains the right to freedom of information and is a hindrance to a free political choice.

When voters are targeted during registration or around elections, the consequences may be that citizens refrain from voting, or vote for a certain political party out of fear, rather than as a free choice.

When electoral violence takes place, adequate support is vital for the development of a well-functioning democratic society and for durable peace.

Strategies to prevent and manage electoral violence mainly focus on the perpetrators of violence, and the perspectives of the victims of such violence are often neglected.

A united approach to support the victims of violence is important so that those affected can cope with the consequences of violence. Strategies directed towards the victims of electoral violence can also prevent violence from negatively affecting the attitudes towards democratic politics, a necessary condition for sustainable peace.

Practitioners and policymakers of electoral violence management should:

  • Include in their analysis an assessment of how victims are affected by electoral violence and how their different needs (material, physical and psychological) can be addressed.
  • Develop a diversified strategy to accommodate different target group to prevent severe individual as well as political consequences of electoral violence.
  • Allocate adequate resources to develop a policy and strategies to address the consequences of electoral violence, and to implement and evaluate such policy.
  • Ensure monitoring and civic education should be continuous activities violence related to electoral processes often begins way ahead of elections.

In some places, politicians are always potential targets of political violence. Citizens at large may feel constrained to openly and freely voice political views, engage in public debates, and organize themselves politically.

In addition, to restrictions of political rights, the consequences of such an insecure environment include difficulties in holding politicians accountable. Electoral violence needs to be continuously addressed.

Conventionally, there is a focus on national and general elections. For instance, electoral violence monitoring and citizen’s and party education programmes are concentrated on the period ahead of such elections.

However, by-elections are sometimes even more prone to violence than the general elections, and violence can also take place between elections.

Therefore, to prevent and manage seriously the causes and consequences of violence, a policy for electoral violence management – especially monitoring and voter-centred strategies – needs to be carried out on a long-term basis and continue between general elections.

Practitioners and policymakers on electoral violence management should:

  • Carry out the groundwork for preventing violence during interim periods.
  • Support political party development, citizen education and media training.
  • Continuously monitor volatile areas during and especially around any by-elections.
  • Allocate adequate resources for maintaining monitoring capacity also in between elections.

Lastly, they should include conflict-mitigating measures in the electoral process design.

*Grey Kalindekafe is a governance, elections, human rights and civic education specialist writing in his personal capacity.

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