Dealing with Election-Related Violence — Lessons from the Training

This week, I had the opportunity to participate as a trainer and facilitator in a workshop on ‘Dealing with Election-Related Violence’ organized by the European Centre for Electoral Support and the Leadership Beyond Boundaries, supported by the Osservatoria di Pavia, and convened by the Barcelona Peace Centre. It all started with the film ‘An African Election’ directed by Jarreth Merz, a great inspiration for the attendees.

The event convened 25 participants, experts and officials from Electoral Commissions and Election Management Bodies (EMB’s) hailing from Spain, Lithuania, Poland, the United States, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nepal, Iraq and Georgia. The programme covered both leadership training, technical training on media and technological tools, and mediation. It is humbling to witness all this great experience and responsibility assembled one place. Unfortunaly, electoral violence occurs frequently, and we are still to find a ‘cure’.

Admittedly, one could be skeptic about how these programs ‘gel’ together. After all, these blocks may not have that much in common on the surface.  The more specialised we become, the more we are suffering from a stovepipe mentality, also in building professional competence: electoral assistance is clearly a field that requires a high degree of technical competence; leadership development is an incredible opportunity for any professional, but is not fully sensitized to these specialized professions; and mediation is yet another professional practice that deals with a different, if not complementary complexity.  Packing my bags from Barcelona, I am convinced that this training points into a new direction in electoral assistance and highlights both practical and policy issues that are worth exploring in detail. It also remarks the fact that training approaches need to be attentive to constant innovation and creativity.

I personally draw five key lessons from this workshop:

  1. Organising elections is the most costly and expensive activity of post war reconstruction, and not only financially, but they are not as costly as a resort to violence. In case there is a relapse into conflict due to a lack of democratic culture, the human and societal costs are enormous; in case a political path to democracy is actually built, vast amounts of taxpayer money will go into an electoral processes. As pointed out in the course, organising elections can cost up to 10 Euros per voter registration. In relation, mediation, including mediation support, is a relatively cost-effective measure aimed to prevent or resolve conflicts.  Electoral assistance and mediation can and should support each other for conflict prevention.
  2. Electoral Violence is most often a symptom of much deeper issues that divide a society. When electoral violence breaks out, crisis mediation or sometimes the use of force come in to mitigate conflict and save human lives. This is not ideal. Knowing that mediation works best at early stages of conflict, it is worthy to consider the building of mediation capacity as a continuous exercise in the field of electoral assistance, and not only a resource in the event of a crisis.
  3. Leadership skills are essential in electoral management. Leadership in this field requires solid change managers who posses a high degree of emotional intelligence coupled with unquestioned integrity. Since leadership begins with a good understanding of ‘self’, personalised training in this field will become indispensable for guaranteeing sustainable approaches in transition democracies.
  4. Mediation is one of the tools for resolving conflict. Clearly, a number of formal tools for dispute settlement are available, and formal dispute settlement systems should not be undermined if they can be fully trusted. Electoral Management Boards and Commissions have a pivotal role to play to help prevent and mitigate conflict: (a) acquiring mediation skills is important for their daily work but also (b) to be able to design multi-stakeholder processes well before E – day. A continued firm and systematic analysis of the electoral cycle with a mixed set of practitioners from the field of leadership, elections and mediation experts should get us closer to finding adequate responses.
  5. So, what kind of skills could electoral bodies benefit from? I noticed that, in mediation, participants appreciated the communication skill module, which we call ‘micro skills’. Listening, showing others that they understand, and creating clarity in communication processes are critical for EMB’s. Being able to structure conflict-sensitive processes that can assist the creation of multi-stakeholder processes is key and has been responded to in various countries (such as Ghana, or Nepal, for instance). Understanding how to relate to international and local mediation efforts is also critical, especially in post war situations. There are important lessons for process-design that can be transferred.
  6. In those stressful crisis situations when elections violence occurs, managers need to have essential leadership skills, technical know-how, and mediation skills.  These skills cannot be learned overnight, but need to become part of a regular professional learning. Continuous capacity building in these fields is needed.

This engagement was made possible through the support of the Swedish and Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the framework of our project to create building blocks for the European Institute of Peace. We will strive to continue our cooperation on this topic and are grateful for the opportunity to work together with world-class experts in the field of leadership development, elections assistance, media, and training.

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Antje Herrberg

Author Antje Herrberg

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