What does it take to organize successful elections? In the wake of recent contested, or contentious, electoral processes around the world, the question is as relevant as ever. And there is no single answer. As the latest report of the Secretary-General on the UN and elections outlines, factors that can help create an environment conducive to credible elections are, among others, mitigating zero-sum politics; pursuing dialogue and consensus in establishing the legal electoral framework; focusing on inclusion and non-discrimination; and encouraging broad participation. The report was presented to the General Assembly on 17 October by Assistant Secretary-General Tayé Brook-Zerihoun. Following the presentation, we interviewed Craig Jenness, Director of the Electoral Affairs Division of the Department for Political Affairs, about the role of elections in preventing conflict and helping secure peace and stability.
Politically Speaking: What is the United Nations doing to promote credible elections around the world?
Craig Jenness: Currently, the United Nations is assisting, at their request or on the basis of a Security Council mandate, about one third of its Member States. As the UN focal point on elections, DPA coordinates the engagement of different parts of the UN family in electoral processes around the globe.
How can elections help prevent conflict?
Elections, when well conducted, can be a process for conciliation, for giving voice to citizens and for peaceful transitions. But they may also deepen divisions, lead to exclusion or trigger violence. The challenge lies in identifying when and how an electoral process can help overcome conflict.
In our experience, a number of factors can help create a context that is conducive to credible elections, even if there is no single formula for all situations. These include: Lowering the stakes involved in an election, and reducing zero-sum dynamics, long before the election itself, including through reforms of the political and economic system; addressing other structural issues of contention and root causes of conflict; promoting guarantees for a role for the opposition; and protecting human rights for all. Additionally, it is important to initiate broad dialogue processes; adopt the electoral rules through dialogue and on the basis of broad political consensus and enhance the inclusiveness of an election and pursuing the full participation of marginalized yet politically relevant groups. These typically include women, minorities, populations in inaccessible areas, as well as those vulnerable due to poverty or other reasons. And lastly, emphasizing the responsibility of political leaders to engage in peaceful, constructive behaviour, and to refrain from incitements, threats, unfounded allegations, and disengagement from a process is an important factor contributing to a successful electoral process.
With quite a number of UN entities involved in electoral assistance – DPA, Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Women and others – who decides whether assistance should be provided by one or the other? How does the Organization ensure that there is no overlap?
Back in 1991 the General Assembly created a system-wide framework for UN electoral assistance that is still in place, and that is unique in the Organization. The intention of the General Assembly was precisely this, to ensure that when it comes to electoral matters, UN entities would work in a coherent way. A prominent feature is that the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs serves as “focal point” for electoral assistance for the entire UN system. This comes with significant authority: the focal point assesses, and decides on, all requests for assistance from Member States, and which organization should do what, even if the assistance is to be provided by entities other than DPA. The focal point also issues internal policies on how to provide electoral support. These apply to all UN personnel involved in electoral issues, irrespective of their organization. (Of course, the focal point exercises these functions in close consultation with other UN entities, and with recognition for respective mandates). There is nothing else like it in the UN system: other areas might have joint coordination structures, but do not involve this kind of system-wide authority.
What is the UN position on term limits?
There is no international norm governing term limits as such, but where they have been adopted, mostly in presidential or semi-presidential political systems, term limits can be important mechanisms to safeguard against “winner-take-all” politics. Under certain circumstances, the removal of or a change in term limits can undermine the confidence necessary for the political system to function well. The potential for amendments to a legal framework to undermine confidence is greater when they are introduced without following the prescribed process, if they are undertaken shortly before an election, or if the process is not based on a broad national consensus. The UN encourages political leaders to consider these factors and their impact before pursuing a change in term limits.
There are recent examples of parties or candidates withdrawing from an election or boycotting it. What is the UN’s stance?
We believe that something valuable is lost when political actors decide to withdraw from an electoral process. Among other things, it means fewer options for citizens to participate and to have their voice heard, narrowing them down to protest and abstention. While there may be situations of such extreme manipulation or violence that meaningful engagement is compromised, in principle contestants should be encouraged to remain engaged in an electoral process they have joined and discouraged from refusing, ex ante, to accept legitimate outcomes for political gain.
How does the UN ensure that women can participate in electoral and political processes?
Supporting the efforts of Member States in promoting women’s participation in political and electoral processes is a high priority for all parts of the UN system.
UN engagement in support of women’s political participation includes advocacy and sensitization; training and capacity-building of women candidates; technical advice to Member States on electoral reforms, and temporary special measures; technical expertise for electoral management bodies, and the ”mainstreaming” of gender in all aspects of the electoral process.
For example, in Libya, the United Nations conducted an electoral gender-mapping exercise in close coordination with relevant local authorities to identify existing barriers to women’s participation and provide recommendations on potential strategies to overcome these barriers. In Nepal, UNDP and the Election Commission designed a programme to encourage the participation of women as candidates in the electoral process, with a particular focus on Dalit women. In Afghanistan, the Electoral Assistance Division advised the Special Electoral Reform Commission on changes to the electoral system, including ways to increase women’s participation through the use of quotas and other temporary special measures. There were also continued systematic efforts to ensure that all United Nations electoral assistance policies and activities are gender-sensitive and include key components on promoting women’s political participation. Every needs assessment includes a gender analysis and related recommendations.
Title picture: Counting Center in Rochan Kadariya, Timor-Leste. Photo: UNDP Timor-Leste