We sat down with Jonas Claes to talk about his new book and how to effectively address election violence.

The 2016 elections in Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and even the United States, demonstrate how high-stake elections frequently trigger anxiety, tension, or even violence. Properly managed elections allow opposing groups to defend their claim to power through a peaceful process. But in fragile democracies, elections are frequently associated with intimidation or violent protest. International election practitioners can engage in different ways to keep the peace—by working with the police, supporting election commissioners, or pressuring lead candidates to refrain from inciting violence. But what works in a given context, what does not, and how do we improve our effectiveness?

To address these questions, EIP teamed up with the European Parliament’s Democracy Support and Election Coordination Group, in cooperation with the European External Action Service (EEAS), the Washington DC- based U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), and the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO), in organising a symposium on Preventing Election Violence on 16 November 2016. EU officials, Members of the European Parliament and expert practitioners from both the election assistance and peacebuilding communities will gather at the European Parliament to discuss the findings of a new publication by Jonas Claes entitled Electing Peace: violence prevention and impact at the polls,” a research volume published by USIP. 

In the run-up to the event, we interviewed the editor of “Electing Peace,” USIP Senior Program Officer, Jonas Claes.

EIP: Congratulations, Jonas, on your new publication. For those unable to read the entire volume, could you briefly summarise the main findings?

Jonas: Ture and Thank you. Together with an impressive team of researchers I closely studied several elections (Bangladesh, Moldova, Honduras, Thailand, Malawi, ed.) that were roughly at equal risk of election violence. In the end, each election experienced very different levels of violence. This set-up allowed us to analyse whether prevention made a difference.

Based on our findings there are strong indications that prevention works, but each approach is not equally promising. Those efforts by the state apparatus in guaranteeing election security and administrating its elections, through its police units or election commission, seemed the most relevant. The impact of engaging local youth or distributing peace messages was less pronounced.”

EIP: This is quite surprising, isn't it? Youth engagement and peace messaging seem to be quite popular approaches.

Jonas: That is right. Both techniques are frequently used by local civil society, as they target a broad section of the electorate. Peace messages encourage voters, parties, and candidates to refrain from violence through sports events, cultural activities or social media. Youth education, employment or training programs try to engage young people specifically. Both approaches aim to change attitudes and behaviors in a very short timeline, but often fail to realise these ambitious objectives. Another common civil society approach, civic education, seems more promising.”

EIP: You indicate that state institutions hold the key to peaceful elections. Does that mean international efforts are a waste of time and resources?

Claes: Certainly not. Surely the state has a primary responsibility to organise the elections and guarantee security—and their efforts seem to matter the most. But neighboring countries, regional donors and international civil society can play an important secondary role in building the capacity of local police, the election commission, or a country’s judicial system. The monitoring missions of international organisations can indirectly reduce the risk of violence as well, by channeling critical intelligence, deterring potential culprits, or by validating the quality of the electoral process.

At times, however, the international community overestimates its own impact. This dynamic was very clear during the 2013 elections in Kenya. The vote was relatively calm, and did not see a widely anticipated repeat of the mass killings that occurred in 2008. However, our research found that the relative calm did not result from international prevention, but rather from the fear and memory of past inter-ethnic clashes around the elections. Having lost faith in political leaders and hope in the credibility of the electoral process, many Kenyans also voiced their unwillingness to fight the results.

EIP: How common is election violence? How big of a problem is it?

Claes: Election violence presents a major problem. According to the African Electoral Violence Database, nearly half of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa regularly experience some form of election violence. Failed prevention may require costly interventions, reverse years of development, and generate a deep distrust in democratic governance.

But the scope of the challenge should not be dramatised either. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, only 10% of elections experience the type of widespread killings we saw in Kenya in 2008, or in Nigeria in 2011. On average, election years are also no more violent than other years. But more so than other types of political violence, election violence undermines the legitimacy of political leaders and a country’s regard for democratisation.

EIP: The European Institute of Peace is actively engaged in political dialogue. How can dialogue serve to prevent election violence most effectively?

Claes: Dialogue is quite prevalent at the community level. One promising model that USIP applies is the engagement of citizens and police in dialogue about justice and security priorities. These initiatives may improve community-police relationships, and identify common security priorities. In Liberia, local efforts are also underway to connect the youth representatives of political parties with police officers through dialogue.

The European Institute of Peace seems primarily engaged in direct and high-level political dialogue. The impact of this approach is promising, but merits further research. In fact, preventive diplomacy stood out in our research as the only instrument that corresponds with higher violence levels. Evidently there is no causal effect at play here—preventive diplomacy does not cause more violence. But the relationship confirms how diplomacy is often used as a crisis management tool, when violence is imminent or already ongoing. Special envoys, cables, or public statements are usually issued late in the game, as a last resort, and not in a truly preventive sense. USIP is searching for ways to make diplomacy truly preventive, considering those approaches that can change the decision-making calculus of leading politicians and candidates early on in the election cycle. The Institute’s evaluative research currently continues in Kenya and Liberia, where we are closely reviewing prevention efforts taken prior to the 2017 elections, to identify those approaches that seem to be the most effective.

EIP: Wouldn’t the success of prevention depend on the context of specific election?

Claes: That is true, but I am convinced that were are able to identify systematic patterns of success that can be linked to various types of election violence. Election violence can take widely different forms, ranging from the destruction of election materials and the intimidation of voters, to the assassination of candidates or widespread killings. The success of prevention is indeed highly contextual - but it is important to engage strategically, based on a thorough assessment, and to start early. When an election date is set, and the type of risk is identified, carefully selected prevention efforts should start immediately. Too often we apply the same measures to different situations, or we wait until 3 or 4 months before election day to initiate programming. The window of opportunity is long gone by that time.

Jonas Claes is a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he conducts research and analysis on the prevention of electoral violence and mass atrocities. In November 2015, Jonas relocated to the European Institute of Peace to continue his USIP activities from Brussels, and to foster institutional collaboration between both organisations through a one-year secondment. He is the editor of “Electing Peace: Violence Prevention and Impact at the Polls,” a book published by USIP that looks at the utility of commonly used election violence prevention instruments.