Australian Outlook

In this section

Preventing Election Violence Through Diplomacy

10 Oct 2018
By Bhojraj Pokharel
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

With many countries suffering from election violence today, what can be done to prevent it? Early, sustained and consistent preventive diplomacy can prove useful.

Elections are fragile processes. Their proper conduct is contingent upon the integrity and goodwill of the institutions, stakeholders and procedures involved. Unfortunately, around one in five elections across the globe suffers from election violence: a phenomenon that threatens election integrity, democratic consolidation and peaceful and effective governance. Preventive diplomacy, if properly tailored to each context and implemented alongside complementary conflict prevention initiatives, can prove useful in mitigating election violence.

Preventive Diplomacy

While there is no universally agreed definition  of preventive diplomacy on electoral violence prevention context,  I define it as “any diplomatic action that is explicitly aimed at promoting and supporting an environment conducive to peaceful and successful elections and ensuring electoral integrity by encouraging government officials, election management bodies, political leadership and non-state actors to keep election-related tensions or disputes from escalating into violence and to pursue legal means to express disagreements”.

Preventive diplomacy is conducted in unlimited ways. For this research it is analysed on six interrelated dimensions:

  • Timing: The stage of the electoral cycle in which diplomatic measures are applied
  • Mandate: The informal or formal authority, or charter, which legitimises and frames diplomatic engagement
  • Message: The content of diplomatic engagement, including messages acting as “carrots” or “sticks” and actions or non-actions
  • Diplomatic Actor: The originator or deliverer of diplomatic engagement and messaging
  • Mode of Engagement: The manner in which diplomatic initiatives are conducted
  • Target Audience: The recipients of diplomatic engagement

This multifaceted characterisation of preventive diplomacy is useful to identify under which conditions different variations of diplomacy will be successful or unsuccessful.

Conditions for effective preventive diplomacy

Preventive diplomacy is most effective when initiated early, sustained through the entirety of the electoral cycle and based on early or comprehensive contextual analysis. Diplomatic engagement should seek to address both structural and operational vulnerabilities to election violence, with an emphasis on the former earlier on in the election cycle and the latter as election day approaches.

Preventive diplomacy is also most effective when engagement is consistent over time and coordinated amongst interlocutors. Selective or reactive engagement and conflicting messages can tarnish the provider’s credibility and insufficiently address extant vulnerabilities.

The capacity and commitment of both the provider and the recipient are paramount to the efficacy of preventive diplomacy.

Access to key stakeholders, particularly political leadership and electoral management bodies, is critical to mission success. These actors are empowered to effect change and thus must be the primary targets of diplomatic attention.

Regional and sub-regional organisations, as well as non-state actors and organisations, possess comparative advantages in violence prevention and are playing increasingly critical roles to this end.

Diplomacy works best when applied alongside other independent and interdependent conflict prevention initiatives, such as human rights monitoring.

Applying preventive diplomacy

Preventive diplomacy can be applied to nearly any case across the globe if properly tailored to each context. While further research is needed to better understand the complex relationship between preventive diplomacy and the risk of election violence, there are a few broad strategies and corresponding tactical policy options that can help address the practical shortcomings of preventive diplomacy.

First, the international community must reinforce its commitment to early and sustained engagement, ensuring diplomatic initiatives are informed by timely, comprehensive and integrated contextual analysis. Providers should develop collective approach frameworks for risk assessment and consistently conduct integrated joint assessments, emphasise information sharing between relevant partners and pursue joint coordinated diplomatic messaging.

Second, international policymakers and relevant donors with the capacity and mandate for preventive diplomacy should invest further in the assessment and monitoring capacity and the violence prevention capabilities of regional intergovernmental bodies and local institutions. Providers should establish and formalise networks of eminent persons and peacebuilders at the regional, national and subnational levels, investing in their capacity for mobilisation; invest in the diplomatic capacities and coordination mechanisms of regional and subregional bodies; mandate and formalise pre-deployment orientation for preventive diplomats, emphasising character-mapping analysis, conflict dynamics, technical aspects of elections and potential diplomatic engagement strategies; and develop monitoring and evaluation frameworks for assessing preventive diplomatic initiatives.

Third, the international community should strengthen diplomatic networks, improving coordination between international, regional and local entities. Providers should empower and include residential diplomats in the planning and implementation of joint prevention efforts, appoint special observers to monitor election violence, develop country-specific task forces to mobilise in the prevention of election violence and develop and formalise mechanisms for diplomatic cooperation between the supranational, national and subnational levels.

These recommendations are targeted primarily towards the international community, but may also have utility for regional and national agencies and actors.

Bhojraj Pokharel is the former chairman of Nepal’s election commission from 2006-2009. He co-led the Carter Center’s 2015 Electoral Observation Mission to Myanmar and was a member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel to Bangladesh’s 2008 elections and South Sudan’s referenda process (2010-2011). He is a member of the core team of the Kofi Annan Foundation’s Electoral Integrity Initiative.

This article is based on a research report entitled ‘Preventing Election Violence through Diplomacy’, prepared as a part of fellowship at the United States Institute of Peace and presented at the IPSA World Congress in Brisbane. The report is in its final stages and is expected to be published in early 2019. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.