Elections after Conflicts

Terrence Lyons

Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: You have done some work in election monitoring and such, and elections are probably a clear indicator of moving toward social justice after order. But given that tension between people who want to rush to social justice and the need for order, can you get to elections too early? Is there a risk in going straight to elections?

A: There is certainly a risk in moving to elections too quickly, but I would also argue that there is a trap in waiting too long. There is a tension between two different dynamics in trying to find the balance point between these two different directions. To go to early means that you have elections while the people are still frightened, still dominated by the sort of legacies of fear and violence from the war.

People who are frightened will often vote for the person that promises them protection, who is often the military person, so in other words, the strong man. It doesn't surprise me at all if you are a Bosnian Muslim who has been purged or ethnically cleansed out of his or her village, you are going to vote for the biggest, strongest Bosnian Muslim. A Muslim, who credibly promises that no one will chase you out of your home again and has the arms and has the military skills to do that. Rather than somebody who says that I am going to make peace or says that I am going to establish a relationship with our former adversaries. But to wait to long, that means that some structure has to govern the country, it can't just float. Groups will come in and install themselves and put themselves in key positions of power and strengthen themselves during the transition without any legitimacy, without anyone telling them that that is okay.

For example, in Afghanistan there are a lot of these militia leaders, who are not in the interim, establishing themselves in little fiefdoms. They haven't had to face elections, no one is there to say, "No you are not allowed to control this area because I won the election." They just do it. The most powerful, often people driving from military power or power from things like diamond running in West Africa or drug running out of Afghanistan or Columbia, or places like that, put themselves in to positions of power. You don't want to wait so long that these types of institutions and leaders create facts on the ground and embed themselves in this society in ways that makes it more difficult to have this kind of open ended transition. It varies. There is another way of looking at it.

Let me use the Bosnia case as an example. Elections in Bosnia were too fast. Therefore the warlords and military people won the elections. I would argue that the problem was not that the elections happened too fast. But it's very nature was a peace agreement that was a peace among ultra-nationalists, so therefore a peace designed to protect the interests of ultra- nationalists on sides. Don't blame the election for that, it goes much beyond the election. The election was the event that allowed us to see most clearly that this was a system that was doing nothing. This was a peace process that was doing nothing to break the hold of hyper-nationalists over their respective communities. This is not just the Serbians, it was true of the Bosniacs and Croatians as well. Elections are kind of snap shots of political power at a time. They don't change that power or the power of the distribution of power.

The term I use in some of my writing is the "typography of power," you can imagine power as almost a 3-D map. If you looked at Bosnia during the 1996 elections you would have seen three high mountains. One was that by Serbian nationalists, the second was by Croatian nationalists and the third was by Bosnian Muslim nationalists. The election showed three parties winning in their respective communities. It was not that the elections created that outcome, the elections reflected an outcome that this 3 part division of power was a result of the war and had not been changed by the peace process.

Q: So in a sense the peace process crystallized the legitimacy of the power of these three different entities?

A: That is a very good way to put it. It is that the election provides some sort of legitimacy. It also kind of locks in place a certain distribution of power, so if you can have a peace process that keeps that power changing, flexible, fluid, rather than locking it in place. The topography in Bosnia had three powerful parties, each in their respective ethnic zones. In Liberia, there was one peak and that was Charles Taylor's national patriotic party. In Mozambique there were two peaks, it was fairly evenly balanced between the government and the insurgents. In Cambodia there was three, so it varies. In a post conflict context an election is very likely to crystallize the power of the groups that became powerful as a result of the war and that is the worry; that you are going to increase the power of the military.

Other organizations that may call themselves political parties in fact really derive their power not because they have mobilized a constituency, but the constituency they mobilize is largely through the manipulation of fear. In other words, vote for me because the other guy is going to come and steal your land if I don't stop them. Or vote for me or else we will go back to war. So those elections are really about war and peace, not about democratic empowerment or the choice of policies or any number of other things that elections might be about. Don't worry too much about the first election that is an election really about order and peace. Worry if this first election provides a beginning that allows you in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th election to have more of a structure that can sustain peace building.

Q: Trying to create a culture of democracy just by having an election in a sense?

A: Yes, in the institutions of democracy. In other words, political parities, rule of law, independent media and civil society that often mobilize and organize around elections.

Q: It is interesting that you say don't worry about the first election because when you said it would be good to have a peace process to have a more amorphous power base it made me think about our initial conversation about stability and how it may have crystallized those hyper-nationalist in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. Yet, is that fairly stable to have three identifiable points of power like that?

A: Yes, and I probably shouldn't have said don't worry about the first election. However, don't make your assessment about the entire process just on the first election because I think that it is often the case that the first election is about frightened people very much mindful of the war voting for parties who promised to protect them. They are often nationalists and often military based.

But the second, third, forth elections, if there is stability, is often about jobs and schools, and who offers how to vote those corrupt people out of power. And so when Croatia, for example, this is less true in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the nationalists have held on to power to date, you know six years, quite a while. In Croatia Proper, while the old Tujmen? people were regarded as corrupt and once there was no longer a war where they could pose as the protectors of the Croatian nation, they were perceived as corrupt people who were pocketing all the money. The voters were saying that they don't need them to protect us, and they certainly haven't given us a job, so let's try another party or some other alliance. So the subsequent elections can be different from the early elections.

In some ways this is an argument that says in the long run things will get better but of course people live and die and are imprisoned in the short run and so on. So how long must you wait? It is often quite easy for someone from the outside to say, "Just give it a generation and things will get better." But for people on the ground; they are living and struggling and dying very much in the short term, very much in the immediate term.

Q: Can you vote corruption out of office or is it an institutional thing?

A: There are often movements to vote the bums out when voters become fed up with the individuals in office or even the political party in office. The problem is that the people who are voted in often fall prey to the same incentives and the same structures.