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How Elections Can Lead to Peace

Making Negotiated Settlements Last

This photo taken on April 14, 2018 shows an Afghan employee of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) registering a resident at a voter registration center for the upcoming parliamentary and district council elections in Herat. (Getty Images)

by Aila M. Matanock

In many civil conflicts, the main question for outside observers is whether combatants can reach a negotiated peace settlement. A settlement, however, is not a panacea: in Chad, for instance, the government and various rebel factions have negotiated more than a dozen settlements, stretching back to the 1970s, yet over half have quickly fallen apart. In fact, as my work shows, negotiated settlements fail almost as often as they succeed.

Yet not all negotiated settlements are created equal: how they are designed can greatly influence the likelihood of enduring peace. Specifically, a central question for academics and policymakers in recent decades has been whether post-conflict elections help or hurt the chances that a given settlement will succeed.

On this question, pessimism prevails. Consider Afghanistan’s 2009 elections: they lacked participation from the main rebel group, the Taliban (with which the government had not negotiated a settlement), and, according to former UN Deputy Envoy Peter Galbraith, were also plagued by weak safeguards against fraud. Predictably, the elections failed to unify the country. Indeed, by attempting to produce rapid democratization under poorly functioning institutions and without drawing in major rebel groups, they simply triggered more violence. Despite these failures, the United Nations and other organizations continue to advocate for—and conduct—post-conflict elections. Is this a mistake? Not necessarily.

In my recent book, Electing Peace: From Civil Conflict to Political Participation, I show that under certain circumstances, post-conflict elections can greatly enhance the durability of peace agreements. Specifically, agreements that enable both rebel and government parties to participate in elections and that engage outside actors as monitors and enforcers markedly increase stability and improve the odds of enduring peace. Just as important, from the perspective of outside actors, engaging through these elections represents a far less costly form of peacekeeping than sending troops to maintain a settlement by force.

SETTING THE TABLE

Ending civil conflicts is a messy business. When negotiating a settlement, especially in a conflict without a clear victor, former combatants must reshape the state so that they can peacefully coexist. But the provisions stipulated in negotiated settlements—which often include demobilizing forces, integrating remaining troops, and, at times, sharing or otherwise distributing political power between the factions—are hard to maintain. Combatants often have trouble trusting that their opponent will stick to the agreement after the conflict ends.

In many civil conflicts, the main question for outside observers is whether combatants can reach a negotiated peace settlement. A settlement, however, is not a panacea

This lack of trust between combatants is not only a result of fighting one another—although violence may be highly protracted, as in the Colombian government’s decades-long war against the FARC rebels—but also, first and foremost, of incentives. If the government or a rebel group has signed onto a settlement but becomes disproportionately strong during implementation, that faction then has every reason to renege. When either side has an opportunity to move policy or resources toward its preferred position, it can hardly be expected to forgo those benefits.

To overcome this trust deficit, combatants in a civil conflict often turn to outside actors—whether foreign states or institutions such as the United Nations—that can monitor and enforce the terms of a settlement. In situations where outside actors can both detect and punish violations, they can make it costly for either side to violate the terms of a deal. The goal is to change the incentives so that combatants stand to lose more from reneging on their commitments than they could potentially gain.

For outside actors, this is a difficult task. All sides need to trust that violations will be punished and that compliance will be rewarded. Effective monitoring requires that outside actors can obtain accurate information on the ground and verify when violations occur. Such violations might be obvious, as when rebels are slaughtered when laying down their arms, but they are often much harder to identify: for instance, during settlement implementation, the government may pass legislation funneling power away from ministries or other positions that the rebels will occupy, or change voting laws so that rebel party supporters are disenfranchised. Once violations are detected, outside actors must also have enough leverage over the former combatants—and a demonstrated willingness to use that leverage—to make credible threats to punish noncompliance. Moreover, the costs to outside actors of monitoring and enforcement must remain low, or else they will not bother to intervene.

One way for outside actors to gather information and potentially enhance their leverage is to deploy armed peacekeepers with mandates to use force to ensure compliance. Peacekeepers are important tools in the monitoring process. But, in many post-conflict cases, these missions have few personnel, enter with mandates only to observe (and not to use force), and their armed members leave before full implementation is complete—all of which limits their ability to leverage force.

Peacekeepers are more useful, however, in the context of elections, where they can easily detect and punish violations. Electoral processes set public benchmarks and regular milestones that facilitate monitoring, and, since they result in a distribution of political power, they provide opportunities to sanction noncompliance. Not only can outside actors shame parties who violate an agreement, they can also suspend aid, remove parties’ access to funds, and exert other international levers of pressure, such as revoking diplomatic privileges from the offending party. During El Salvador’s peace process in the 1990s, for instance, the government failed to register voters, mainly among rebel supporters, which threatened to tip the balance of power in the government’s favor; UN officials visited municipalities throughout the country and verified the complaints, and then the United States froze disbursement of $70 million in aid—pressure that ultimately forced the government to dramatically increase the pace of registration.

BALLOTS, NOT BULLETS

In Electing Peace, I examined the 122 negotiated settlements signed in civil conflicts between 1975 and 2005 to better understand the role of elections and outside actors in cementing peace deals. I used statistical models to analyze the predictors of provisions for elections with combatant parties and the duration of peace after these settlements, and I explored the mechanisms in case studies from Central America.

The evidence shows, first, that, since 1989, almost half of all negotiated settlements to civil conflicts have provided for post-conflict elections with political parties representing both the government and rebel groups.

Most of these post-conflict elections, moreover, have taken place under the watchful eye of peacekeeping missions—monitors backed by donors willing to suspend aid over violations. Specifically, 94 percent of post-conflict elections with participation from both government and rebel parties engaged international observers, compared to only 53 percent of post-conflict elections without such participation; in 77 percent of the elections with participation from each side, outside actors exerted some sort of conditionality or pressure before the elections, compared to only 44 percent of other post-conflict elections.

My research shows that this approach pays off: when negotiated settlements provided for post-conflict elections for which the signatories agreed to establish political parties, the chance of enduring peace increased dramatically. Of the settlements in which these conditions were met, 79 percent resulted in at least five years of peace between the signatories, compared to only 44 percent of settlements that did not provide for post-conflict elections with combatant political parties. The pacifying effect, however, only existed where combatants could expect that outside actors would monitor and enforce the terms of their settlements through these electoral processes.

Commander Joaquin Villabolos signs the El Salvadoran Peace Accords at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, Mexico, on Jan. 16, 1992. (AP)

KEEPING THE PEACE

The evidence is clear: negotiated settlements can reliably lead to peace when they include provisions for post-conflict elections with combatant participation and engage outside actors for monitoring and enforcement in order to solve the trust deficit between the formerly warring sides. This conclusion contrasts with pessimistic work on post-conflict elections that fails to differentiate between types of elections and the subsequent role of outside powers.

When seeking to end a civil conflict, policymakers should not shy away from post-conflict elections, as long as both the government and the rebels buy into the process. Even odious combatants seeking to transform into political parties as part of peace processes often should be allowed to do so in the name of peace. UN and other international peacemakers can go as far as to propose the inclusion of electoral participation provisions to combatants considering a settlement. Further, linking demobilization, disarmament, reintegration, and other peacekeeping provisions to the electoral process may help ensure that they too are met.

Not all combatants will welcome such provisions. Each side must first see the conflict as costly, know that it is unlikely to win outright without unacceptable losses, and expect that it will not be suckered into a bad settlement.

When negotiated settlements provided for post-conflict elections for which the signatories agreed to establish political parties, the chance of enduring peace increased dramatically

Here, too, outside actors can help, especially by reassuring combatants that the terms of any agreement they sign will be enforced. Peacekeepers—even small observation missions that do not need to threaten force—and international election observers can openly monitor compliance with the peace process. Outside donors working through and alongside these observers can also explicitly condition various forms of aid, such as democracy and governance assistance and party trust funds, on that compliance. Being clear about these mechanisms can help convince combatants of credible enforcement and ultimately lead to peace. Strengthening intergovernmental organizations so that no single state is entrusted with determining noncompliance or imposing sanctions can also help with concerns about partisanship.

Finally, because outside actors are so important for maintaining peace during and after these post-conflict elections, any reduction in funding for intervening organizations, such as the UN and the African Union, would be a blow to peace. The United States pays the largest share of the UN peacekeeping budget, and it has been a crucial participant in post-conflict observation and assistance, which is relatively cost-efficient, especially when it operates in the context of these post-conflict elections. Washington’s interest in this role may be waning: as U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley tweeted in 2017, “we’ve cut over half a billion $$$ from the UN peacekeeping budget & we’re only getting started.” The evidence suggests, however, that cutting support to this type of international engagement would be a dangerous mistake.

This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.

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