Diagnosing electoral violence

Diagnosing electoral violence
Diagnosing electoral violence

Maj. Gen. (Rtd) J. B Tjivikua

Africa-Press – Namibia. ELECTIONS are held in nearly all countries in the contemporary world, including Namibia. Yet, despite the aim of allowing for peaceful transfer of power, elections are often accompanied by substantial violence.

The employment of elections to elect leaders ought to provide a non-violent alternative to the use of force or violence, to adjudicate between rival claims to rule and it ought to be a mechanism that allows citizens greater say over how they are governed.

Yet, in practice, these expectations often fail to conform to reality. Electoral violence is cunningly used to influence the outcome of elections, to delay, disrupt or derail polls, and to protest election results or to suppress protests against the results, and this can undo years of peace-building and development.

Electoral violence significantly hinders the meaningful engagement of people in the electoral processes. Given the substantive relevance of electoral violence as a problem, it is important for us as citizens to have a clear understanding of its prevalence, causes, and dynamics, as well as what can be done to prevent it.

Elections are one of the main pillars of democracy. Despite that, election-related violence has significantly hindered the meaningful engagement of people in the electoral process. However, elections can trigger violence when fundamental human rights of citizens, such as rights to association and expression are violated, and when certain segments of society are unable to engage with political processes.

Thus, preventing the eruption of election-related violence, to preserve the integrity of elections and democratic systems is fundamental to a country’s long-term peace, stability and prosperity.


The objective of electoral violence is to influence the electoral process, and by extension its outcome. Electoral violence covers a wide range of different manifestations and outcomes, but the concept is unified by its coercive component.

Research suggests that harassment and intimidation are more common than lethal violence, despite the fact that lethal violence is generally better covered and less subject to underreporting in the media that underlie many of the cross-country sources capturing electoral violence.

However, violence associated with elections can generate a significant number of casualties, and

form part of an escalator process towards civil war.


Reducing the risk of election-related violence is a complex proceeding that requires building general trust among key players, including media, security services, political parties, civil society and others in crisis prevention programmes.

Therefore, the government must take immediate remedial action to reduce the risks of electoral violence, and enhance people’s sense of security and freedom in exercising their right to vote.

During the election cycle, the possibility of violence increases as the stakes of political contestation heighten, and when outcomes between candidates and incumbents are viewed in a zero-sum manner.

As such, electoral violence is rarely monocausal. It is indeed a confluence of factors that enables violence before, during or after an election. To prevent and mitigate electoral violence, therefore, government must develop tools and interventions that empower key political actors to embrace non-violent means of contesting politics.

For such efforts to be effective, election programme implementers and political actors alike must better understand the structural and individual factors that nourish a culture of violence, and the range of interventions that could be exploited to mitigate violence around elections.

Many approaches to electoral violence prevention suffer from a narrow focus by failing to engage political parties, who are invariably the key perpetrators of such violence. Extant election assistance approaches focusing on empowering domestic observers to deter violence, helping election management bodies to combat systematic manipulation, malpractice, and fraud or bringing together representatives of conflicting groups at the grassroots level to talk in a safe space can improve effective communication and ameliorate the situation on the ground.

Other electoral violence prevention programmes that focus mainly on civic education and peace messaging to encourage citizens to participate in the elections peacefully and deter them from pursuing violence, must vigorously be undertaken. While existing approaches are aimed at prevention and mitigation, they target voters and citizens more than political actors and institutions. This must be improved upon.

Therefore, the government should address this gap by developing a tool kit that interrogates and surveys evidence on existing approaches to mitigate electoral violence effectively. The tool kit aims to help policy makers and programme implementers to develop a strategic approach to election violence mitigation that specifically engages political parties’ actors. In the context of electoral violence, deterrence is a practice of disincentivising or restraining political parties from undermining unwarranted actions or transgressions such as ballot fraud, voter intimidation and violence.

Code of Conduct

A code of conduct can be a vehicle for changing social norms if they are actively referenced and become part of the discourse surrounding the elections. The code of conduct should also be customised for local contexts and dynamics. Pacts, pledges and indeed code of conduct may be more likely to be associated with lower levels of initiated violence.

Thus, political parties should primarily be involved in developing the code of conduct so that they take ownership of it, and are engaged in a

discussion of what the code entails.

The code should be revised well in advance of each election. The code should importantly establish a national enforcement management body to oversee compliance, and political parties’ leaders should also meet regularly at the election management body to review compliance with the code.

Strategy of violence

Electoral violence is typically selected from available tools to achieve electoral ends, even if the use of force may simultaneously deliver on other goals.

The goals of violence generally include political exclusion from candidacy [via attacks on candidates]; from campaigning [via attacks or obstruction of campaign events]; from the provision of electoral information [via attacks on media outlets, election observers, and NGOs involved in voter education]; from electoral participation and free electoral choice [via the intimidation, coercion, and/or displacement of voters]; from electoral victory [via attacks on polling stations and poll workers or the destruction of polling materials]; or from power [via post-electoral protests contesting the outcome of the election].

Even when the overall objective is to influence the electoral process, the motivations for the individuals involved as instigators or perpetrators of the electoral violence can be different from group and leadership goals.

This makes electoral violence – like all forms of political violence – multi-layered and diverse. Also, the act of violence may be driven by private motives, such as revenge dynamics, sometimes unrelated to the electoral process, or lie in with local power struggles, or factionalism, disconnected from the national-level electoral dynamics.

As such, all forms of violence must not be rewarded at all and, must be condemned unreservedly.

In summary, electoral violence constitutes a distinct form of electoral manipulation. Hence, episodes of electoral violence are thus integral components of sinister political strategies. It is apt to quote from researcher Njau Kihia, who said: “Elections aren’t a matter of who wins. They are about who best represents our values. Voting is not only about exercising our democratic right and expressing the will of the people, but a way of demanding for services that we deserve from those that we trust”.


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