Getting the Timing Right: Elections in Transitional Contexts

Run-off presidential elections in Mali, 2018. UN Photo/Marco Dormino

When is the right time to hold an election? Under normal circumstances, the answer can be found in a country’s constitution or other foundational rules of the political system and could be either a fixed date or a certain period in which regular elections should be held. But in countries coming out of conflict or going through a political transition, matters are more complicated: a constitution may be temporarily suspended, or a comprehensive peace agreement may be under negotiation, and there may not be an agreed legal framework to draw on.

In such situations, how soon can — and how soon should — an election be held after the settlement of a conflict, or the forced removal of a government, or the adoption of an interim political dispensation? Country practice varies considerably. And the issue can be controversial: both accelerated and cautious timetables can be seen as being politically motivated. Opinions may also reasonably differ as to whether a country is “ready” to hold elections, and whether an electoral contest might lead to more tension or even violence.

Electoral calendars are a matter of national, sovereign choice, but how does the UN approach the question, given its involvement in providing electoral assistance to Member States? “While there is no general formula, one would strive for timing that balances stability and operational preparedness with the need for legitimacy of government,” explains Simon-Pierre Nanitelamio, Deputy Director of the Electoral Assistance Division of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA). “Identifying such a point of balance will entail assessing, case by case, the political and security risks attached to different timing options.”

Citizens rally at the Plaza San Francisco in La Paz, Bolivia following national elections. UN Bolivia/Hasan Lopez

Four dimensions provide the framework for such a risk assessment.

  • Timing and sequencing. What is the election for, and how does it fit in with other key events in the transition? Having a regular election — rather than an election for an interim body — before a new constitution or political disposition has been adopted may be divisive. The sequencing of an election in relation to other upstream events — the drafting or adoption of a new constitution, or a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process, for example — may be as important as timing in absolute terms, as these other steps may help lower the stakes in an electoral contest.
  • The rules of the game. Is there broad, political consensus on the electoral legal framework and on the institutions that would administer the process? Confidence in an election outcome is critical in determining the risk of further conflict. And experience suggests that such confidence is greater when broad agreement has been reached on how the election is to be conducted, and by whom.
  • Establishing legitimacy. Who should govern and lead the transformation of the country before an election is held, and with what legitimacy if not by an election? Any interim, (self-)appointed government — even an inclusive government of national unity born out of a peace deal — will exhaust its legitimacy over time. The pace of that erosion will depend on a number of factors — including an interim government’s ability to govern effectively and inclusively — but ultimately it may result in a risk of conflict.
  • Adequate operational preparedness. Clearly the technical quality of an election is important as it helps generate confidence that the result reflects the people’s will. Nevertheless, most elections produce peacefully accepted results even in the face of numerous imperfections. Without expecting or waiting for perfect conditions, an assessment of preparedness entails asking whether there is an election management body in place, with personnel throughout the country who are capable of administering the process, and with adequate funding, materials and equipment to carry out polling and counting. Ideally, there should be a voter register that people have trust in.

When asked by the press in 2004, how soon the first post-Saddam Hussein elections would be held in Iraq, then Special Adviser to the Secretary-General Lakhdar Brahimi replied: “We have agreed [with the Iraqis] that we need to organize elections as early as possible, but not earlier than possible.” By approaching the issue through a risk assessment lens, DPPA is developing the ability to apply Mr. Brahimi’s pithy statement in concrete ways wherever questions of election timing arise.

Providing electoral assistance to Member States is one of the key functions of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA). As the UN system-wide Focal Point for electoral assistance, on behalf of the Secretary-General, DPPA ensures coordination and coherence across the United Nations system in responding to Member States’ requests, including working closely with other entities, in particular the Department of Peace Operations (DPO), UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

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The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs

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Politically Speaking

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The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs

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