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Understanding, addressing electoral violence

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By Gray Kalindekafe:

CAN BE VOLATILE— Elections

Electoral violence – understood as coercive force, directed towards electoral actors and/or objects, that occurs in the context of electoral competition – can occur before, during or after elections and it can target a variety of actors, including candidates, activists, poll workers, election observers, journalists and voters.

Recent analyses of patterns and trends in electoral violence have found that it is a global phenomenon affecting mainly electoral authoritarian or hybrid states, particularly those in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

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There is a seeming paradox at work on the African continent in general and Malawi in particular. Democracy has established itself as the dominant political system; and as an integral part of this process, multi-party elections have emerged as the most legitimate route to political office.

Yet, in recent years, violence has increased in such elections. Between democracy and ‘Big Man’ politics is another factor, although the formal institutional make-up of many African states including in Malawi has changed, the underlying logic of politics has not.

Power and resources are still largely concentrated at the centre, raising the stakes of elections. The winner literally takes it all, while the loser is left ‘standing small’. In a strongly politicised ‘Big Man’ system, individuals must be sure they have backed the right horse in the lead-up to elections to protect their own interests.

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What has drastically changed in many countries, however, is the emergence of real political competition for power and more efficient restraints on electoral fraud, such as ballot stuffing. As democracy slowly becomes entrenched and electoral competition grows stronger, the risk of election-related violence may increase.

The benefits of winning elections and the disadvantages of losing them must be reduced to avoid the violence that a winner-takes-all situation can trigger. Election observers should pay more attention to subtle forms of violence, intra-party tensions and incumbents playing the security card to justify increased use of force. This policy note considers how to curb the increase of violence in African elections.

Interventions designed to prevent and/or mitigate electoral violence include a range of activities targeted at electoral actors: police training, security planning, electoral management body capacity building, peace messaging, codes of conduct and grassroots peace advocacy by civil society groups.

Some of the long-term measures to resolve electoral conflicts are as follows:

Lower the stakes of elections

The benefits of winning elections must be reduced. Political and economic power should be fundamentally decentralised and redistributed in a meaningful way. Institutions that serve as checks and balances on executive power need to be strengthened.

Holding political office should not be a guaranteed route to impunity for life for violence and human rights abuses. The choice of electoral systems is also important in this respect. Electoral reform can play a key role in circumventing winner-take-all elections and encourage more broad-based political solutions.

There must also be a role in the system for electoral losers. The role of parliaments must be strengthened; the political opposition must have access to expression, influence and resources; and local governance structures must become more independent and self-sufficient. The problem is not patronage politics per se. It is that all networks are organised in such a way that they are ultimately tied to the top office.

Support democratisation beyond elections

Democracy must extend beyond formal electoral institutions. It is important to acknowledge that while elections may have emerged as the only game in town, democracy has not. And it may be precisely because multi-party elections are gaining ground that we see a rise in election-related violence.

As genuine political competition emerges and becomes an integral part of the political system, the outcome of elections matters more than ever. At the same time, political tolerance for divergence of opinion is often low, institutions weak or manipulated, the rule of law largely absent, and large parts of civil society politicised.

Impunity for political violence is often widespread. Hence, one of the most important and fundamental remedies for addressing electoral violence is to support the democratisation of the political landscape beyond elections. Considering the large number of groups that converge on political parties and the multitude of individuals in many African settings who denounce violence to pursue electoral politics, more effort should go into supporting such transformative processes to move in a peaceful and democratic direction.

Expand election monitoring

More time and resources should be devoted to the periods between general elections. Many instances of electoral violence take place long before election day and within political parties. One way is to support domestic election observation missions that have the capacity to remain in place for extended periods of time and ensure their presence in remote locations.

More attention should also be paid to subtle forms of election-related violence. Verbal threats and belligerent narratives may play an instrumental role in securitising social processes, especially in the context of elections in new and fragile and new democracies.

More support should be devoted to institutions and processes that aim to strengthen intra-party democracy, such as codes of conduct for political parties and intra-party mediation; and not only at the time of general elections, but as permanent institutions.

Rethink electoral security

One of the cards incumbents often play to control and manipulate electoral processes to their advantage is to deliberately securities them to justify the need for increased security measures. Such measures may consist of arming security forces and other actors, declaring a state of emergency to enable the unconstitutional use of force, banning public protests and demonstrations or changing media laws.

While upholding law and order is the duty of the government in power, such measures also carry critical risks in countries where the government is often accused of conflating the party with the state. International actors involved in electoral assistance and support need to be aware of these dynamics and ensure that civil liberties and rights are not circumvented under the guise of security measures.

Address unresolved conflicts at local level

Lingering conflicts over land, nepotism, social exclusion or unresolved post-election resentments often feed into and reinforce electoral violence at local level. Localised conflicts amplify the possibilities for elites to recruit and mobilise people for electoral violence.

Specifically, strengthening and supporting land and electoral reforms may be one of the most important factors for the prevention of electoral violence. Issues concerning equitable distribution of resources, tribalism, regionalism, high unemployment level s , hereditary rights, witchcraft issues, access to education are among the most crucial and contested in political life in Malawi and Africa in general.

At the same time, unresolved land, equitable distribution of national resources, nepotism and electoral disputes are often an integral component of a greater pattern of political social and economic inequalities and may be difficult to address in isolation.

*The author is writing in his own capacity as a governance, elections, human rights and civic education specialist

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