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Race to the Ballot Box: UN Must Learn from Past Mistakes, Avoid Pre-Mature Elections in Syria

Syrians cast their vote in a controversial presidential election in 2014. Although the government claimed voter turnout was at 73%, many observers criticized the process and said the results were illegitimate. Photo from Wikimedia

Last week, the eighth round of UN-sponsored peace negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition began in Geneva. Leading the talks, Syria Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura prioritized discussion of elections. In March 2016, de Mistura had proposed an 18-month timeline for the election date, and the issue has continued to be on the top of his agenda. His emphasis on elections is likely a strategic one. Elections would symbolize a turning point in the conflict and signal that recovery is on the horizon. It would also lessen an overwhelming obstacle in the negotiations – who will lead in post-conflict Syria – by leaving the decision to the Syrian public. Despite these benefits, the Special Envoy should bear in mind lessons-learned from past transitional elections and avoid prioritizing a short-term win over adherence to best practices.

Some scholars argue the promise of early elections is vital to peace and democracy in post-conflict settings because they facilitate peace settlements, encourage international actors to contribute peacekeeping forces, and expedite democratization processes. But elections also carry a number of risks, particularly in unstable post-conflict contexts:

  1. Renewed violence: In transitional elections, security issues are a primary concern. Early elections in the absence of demobilization or disarmament efforts increases the likelihood that one side to the conflict will reject the results and return to armed conflict. This is especially true when there is no means of power-sharing and government institutions have not been rebuilt. In 2010, a presidential election in Côte d’Ivoiredescended the nation into a renewed civil conflict after losing candidate Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power and forces loyal to each candidate took up arms.
  2. Inaccessible ballot locations: Insecurity and violence will also prevent voters from going to the polls. Moreover, some 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the war began. Ensuring that displaced peoples have a safe, confidential, and practical means of voting will require resources, infrastructure, and coordination with states that are hosting refugees. Without security at ballot boxes or an opportunity for the displaced to vote, the results of any election will be skewed and seen as illegitimate.
  3. Weakened democratization initiatives: Pre-mature elections often prevent historically oppressed segments of society sufficient time to organize a representative political party capable of campaigning and competing at the national level, meaning that entrenched powers are more likely to win and claim legitimacy. Early elections can also serve as a stage for nationalist, sectarian, or extremist platforms because society has not had enough time to engage in civil debate and moderate opposing positions. Post-conflict Bosnia held elections before it built the necessary institutions to enforce fair polling. The elections resulted in irregularities and fraud, and ended in a zero-sum “pseudo-democratic legitimization of extreme nationalist power structures.” While it is true that elections are often imperfect, they are also seen as the primary symbol of democracy. Thus, severely flawed or failed elections in a transitional state could weaken the populace’s faith in democratization altogether and cause widespread disillusionment with the new system.
  4. Voting “under the gun” – Fear, coercion, and propaganda are also threats to the process. In Chile, for example, former President Augusto Pinochet held a snap vote to determine whether the citizenry approved of his regime’s policies. With the military overseeing ballot boxes, few were surprised when Pinochet boasted a 75 percent approval rating. People must feel confident that they will not face negative consequences for their vote, which is unlikely if the same coercive pre-conflict security apparatus is in place or if armed groups are monitoring polling locations.

Considering the risks, transitional elections require time and planning to build fair and stable institutions. These include a strong legal framework, independent electoral management bodies (EMBs), a secure environment that fosters participation, and time and resources for emerging political party formation. Without these elements, the fundamental legitimacy of the election outcome could be undermined.

In Syria, the potential election outcomes must also be considered. If Bashar al-Assad or one of his close associates wins because voters see it as the only viable option, will Western countries start from a blank slate, reopening embassies and reestablishing commerce? If voters bring to power an extremist element because it is the only entity with sufficient external resources to form a powerful opposition, will the West shun the results? And would the current government relinquish power? Who will force it to and how? These are important questions with no easy answers.

Fortunately, a pre-mature nationwide election is not the only option. According to Daniel Serwer, director of the Conflict Management Program at Johns Hopkins University and SJAC Board member, prioritizing local elections prior to national elections may be one method to test the waters, expose emerging political leadership to the competitive campaign process, and offer marginalized groups a venue to organize. Local elections would also afford Syrians the opportunity to vote on discrete localized issues that are less likely to be marred by the toxic ethnic and sectarian divides that have defined the conflict.

“At the local level, people can align along not ethnic or sectarian lines but on issues,” Serwer said. “Who is best at getting a road opened or rebuilding schools? This is what you want in post-war society.”

Whether it is local or national elections, timing is essential. Former Syria Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has stated, “We need to organize elections as early as possible, but not earlier than possible.” The current Special Envoy and the negotiating parties must understand and weigh the risks while pursuing elections, taking caution not to overvalue the symbolism of a cast ballot. Without anticipating these issues, a cessation of violence may prove temporary, instead damaging the Syrian public’s faith in free and fair elections.

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