The Role of UN Electoral Assistance in Strengthening Democracies

Politically Speaking
4 min readFeb 1, 2024

During this “big” election year, when some 2 billion people are said to be eligible to vote in polls around the world, the principles that guide the work of the UN on electoral assistance are as important as ever.

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

I n 2024, some 60 countries — home to more than half the world’s population — are set to hold elections. They include India, the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil (at the municipal-level), Bangladesh, the Russian Federation and Mexico. Two of these are permanent members of the Security Council. Other important regional actors, such as South Africa, Iran, and the Republic of Korea — are also scheduled to go to the ballot box. The outcomes, including possible changes in foreign policy, may have repercussions far beyond national borders.

In around 20 countries that will or may hold elections this year, the UN system — in particular DPPA, DPO and UNDP — is providing technical assistance at the request of the country concerned or based on a UN mandate. As in other years, senior officials on the ground and technical experts are supporting national actors to build technical capacity and encouraging responsible political behaviour.

Most elections this year will probably be uneventful. “We expect that many processes will show democracy working as it should: voters choosing to reelect or change their leaders, and politicians accepting the outcome,” says Craig Jenness, Director of the Electoral Assistance Division in the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA).

In some instances, however, there could be reason for apprehension. There may, for example, be technically flawed processes, limited political space, unfounded and well-founded allegations of fraud, boycotts, online disinformation and hate speech (particularly against women), or the manipulative use of Artificial Intelligence. And countries coming out of armed conflict or still vulnerable to tensions, may face challenging security situations.

Tailoring assistance to unique needs

The UN’s approach to electoral assistance is characterized by a tailored response to each nation’s specific needs. This recognizes the sovereign nature of elections and the uniqueness of political contexts. More than 115 countries have sought and received UN electoral assistance since the Organization’s creation, a measure of the recognition of the Organization’s expertise in this domain.

“Our involvement in electoral assistance is also rooted in the recognition that credible elections are an effective way for citizens to express their political preferences and confer legitimacy on their chosen leaders and governments,” Jenness said. A credible election involves not only implementing the letter of electoral laws, but also following the spirit and values of a genuine electoral process, he added.

The first UN electoral mandate goes back to 1947. But the Organization’s involvement in electoral processes has significantly evolved since then in response to the changing needs and circumstances of Member States. Initially focusing on supervision or observation, the Organization now predominantly engages in technical assistance. This means working in support of national authorities — typically electoral management bodies, but also legislatures or other state entities — with advice, capacity-building and logistical support, rather than monitoring and commenting on the quality of a process or conducting elections itself.

UN electoral assistance is guided by objectivity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence — meaning that the UN does not favour one group or candidate over another, and that it will not accept instructions from any external source. The responsibility for organizing elections remains with Member States, and the UN’s role is to provide support in an advisory capacity. This collaborative approach fosters a sense of national ownership and commitment to the democratic process.

A UN system-wide approach to electoral assistance

Different UN entities work together in providing electoral assistance to ensure comprehensive and coordinated approach. The Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) serves as the UN Focal Point for electoral assistance matters. This role entails assessing all requests from Member States, formulating the parameters for UN assistance in a given country, and setting internal electoral assistance policy for the UN system.

“Member States have made it clear that they expect the UN as a whole to work coherently in this field and have given the Focal Point responsibilities that are unique for the UN system,” says Jenness. DPPA collaborates closely with the Department of Peace Operations (DPO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UN-Women, as well as others in the UN system.

In addition to its operational efforts, the UN partners with other organizations — including intergovernmental regional organizations such as the African Union, the League of Arab States, and the Pacific Islands Forum — to exchange know-how and provide resources for elections practitioners.

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Politically Speaking

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