One of the pillars of the European Union’s external policy is the promotion of democracy. The EU conditions its assistance to the quality of democratic practice, the emblem of which is electoral behaviour and the institutions that support free and fair elections. Democratisation efforts are seen as part and parcel of the EU’s efforts to support development, peace and security around the world. Indeed according to EC sources, between 2003 and 2010, the EU spent 700 Million Euros on electoral assistance activities.
During the same period, the tragic consequences of electoral abuse, when elections are manipulated, falsified or further exacerbate existing tensions, have been highlighted repeatedly by events in the Arab world, in the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood, and across Africa.
Electoral abuse has bred violence, refugee movements and regional instability: the EC-UNDP Partnership on Electoral Assistance estimates that at least 1,500 people were killed and one million fled as a result of disputed elections in Ivory Coast; and that 1,300 people died in Kenya after the 2007 elections. The subsequent cost to the EU of addressing these consequences is infinitely higher than the cost of prior action to mediate and thus prevent or limit electoral abuse and conflicts.
In fact, some of the most high-profile recent international mediation efforts came in the wake of electoral crises, such as in Kenya in 2007. This means international mediators need to be attuned to the particularities of election-related disputes they may be called in to mediate; conversely, there is scope for electoral assistance and observation missions to raise alarm bells when mediation may be necessary.
The idea of elections mediation may face limitations inasmuch as it may be regarded as an interference in the domestic affairs of a country. On the other hand, abuse of elections all too often result in different, more costly and potentially coercive interventions such as humanitarian assistance, sanctions or military involvement.
Today, some argue that the principle of “non-intervention” in sovereign matters needs to be balanced by the need to protect democratic process, especially when democracy is so abused as to create entirely new and very costly crises.
The challenge, therefore, is to enrich the current EU policy framework for democratisation by providing adequate mediation tools to support the strategic objective of promoting free and fair elections.
Beyond the already existing mechanisms of electoral assistance and election observation, we are currently investigating, as part of a wider, Belgian-funded project on EU capacity-building, whether and how to introduce and institutionalise mediation support by third parties to help tackle disputes arising from electoral processes.