EXPLAINER: “How to Lose an Election”— Preventing Electoral Violence

Voters in Nepal. Credit: UNDP

Elections are sovereign and deeply political processes that distribute power and legitimize the authority to govern. Accepting defeat is critical in averting violence.

Elections are an important part of the work of the United Nations, and specifically of its Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA). These processes are fundamental in facilitating the peaceful transfer or retention of political power through regular intervals or in a transitional context, such as in the wake of a peace agreement.

With so much political, and often economic, power on the line, the stakes are always high. Election results inevitably produce both winners and losers. In this struggle, an electoral contest can expose underlying schisms and conflict, increase tensions, and be a trigger for violence. Ensuring that there is trust in these processes and that the results are credible and accepted by the defeated party or candidate are the true measure of a successful election. But how can this be done, and what role can the United Nations play, if any, in achieving this?

“The technical quality of an election is important, but many elections are accepted even in the face of technical flaws or weaknesses,” explains Rosemary DiCarlo, the Under-Secretary-General for DPPA and the United Nations focal point for electoral assistance matters. “And even a competently run election can lead to tensions or violence. Just as elections can be a means of overcoming conflict, so too, electoral assistance when carefully managed can be a tool of conflict prevention.”

In providing electoral assistance at the specific request of the Member State concerned or as mandated by the Security Council or the General Assembly, the United Nations has learned the importance of combining technical support, often through the national electoral authority, with engagement at the political level and with preventive diplomacy, whether through good offices, supporting political dialogue, facilitation, or mediation. It has also recognized the importance of considering the perspective of defeated leaders and their supporters in the face of an electoral loss.

Ballot counting in La Paz during the 2020 elections in Bolivia. Photos courtesy of UNDP Bolivia.
Ballot counting in La Paz during the 2020 elections in Bolivia. Photos courtesy of UNDP Bolivia.

Representatives of the Secretary-General — special representatives, envoys, and resident coordinators — often in tandem with regional and subregional organizations, may play strategic roles in cultivating these factors, where appropriate and as requested, whether helping to encourage the constructive participation of political leaders or to defuse pre- and post-election tensions. Engagement takes many forms based on the election, country and context. For example, the United Nations contributed to national peace consolidation efforts in Bolivia, which included components of preventive diplomacy, electoral assistance and human rights monitoring, including at regional levels; and in Burkina Faso, United Nations leadership supported establishing a consultative framework that enabled the government and leaders of political parties to reach consensus on abiding by the electoral calendar during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Iraq, the United Nations mission supported contestants agreeing to an electoral code of conduct in which they rejected intolerance, violence and hate speech, during the campaign and voting.

As part of the Organization’s efforts to enhance its capacity, DPPA’s Electoral Assistance Division and the United Nations System Staff College jointly developed a training course on Political approaches to preventing and responding to election-related violence. The course, held several times annually for United Nations personnel, explores the nexus between the technical quality of an election and the broader political and economic context, and how these factors shape trust in an electoral process and the acceptance of results. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of holding the course and to capture the Organization’s experience in conflict prevention and supporting the peaceful acceptance of election results, DPPA is launching a new initiative, the DPPA Electoral Series.

The DPPA Electoral Series consists of interviews with senior United Nations officials on how the Organization engages with Member States to support and foster conducive environments, including the acceptance of results and the tools that may be at hand to do so. Speakers will offer reflections on their experiences and the challenges of electoral support and the connection to broader conflict prevention efforts.

Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo explains her role as UN focal point for electoral assistance matters, the goals of UN support, our approach to elections and our work with partners.

The Electoral Series kicks off this week with reflections from Ms. DiCarlo. Throughout the coming months, additional interviews will be held with, among other officials, Nicholas Haysom, the Special Representative for South Sudan, and Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, the Special Representative to the African Union — all interviews will be made available across United Nations online platforms.



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Politically Speaking

Politically Speaking


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