The United Nations (UN) has been providing electoral assistance since its early years. At present, UN entities provide support to some 70 member states, typically in the form of technical assistance to electoral management bodies (EMBs). Drawing on public reports and specific examples of UN engagement, this paper discusses how the UN designs its support to such bodies, and what role notions such as EMB performance and electoral integrity play in UN policy thinking, comparing this with the focus in recent academic research. From there, the paper will draw some broader conclusions about the goals of UN electoral assistance.
One of the most pernicious challenges facing UN member states – particularly in post-conflict or transitional settings – are situations in which electoral contestants refuse to accept an electoral process. When supporting member states, the UN therefore seeks answers not only to the question: how do we help ensure compliance with international commitments?, but also more broadly: under which circumstances are contestants more likely to win magnanimously or lose graciously? How might one strengthen public confidence and increase the likelihood that outcomes are accepted?
UN efforts in this regard are based on the finding that the relationship between the quality of a process and the legitimacy of the outcome is not straightforward. UN experience suggests that confidence in an election is molded by its broader political context, including the stakes involved in an election and the political cost of losing; in other words, by macro-level factors that go beyond the quality of the electoral process itself or the effective performance of the EMB. UN experience also suggests that it is political leaders, rather than election administrators, who play a key role in facilitating an acceptance of credible election results.
This way of thinking about what makes elections successful has important policy implications. UN engagement in promoting the peaceful acceptance of election results includes a broad range of political and technical measures. This includes good offices, preventive diplomacy, electoral assistance and promoting respect for human rights – as well as other non-electoral areas of work. Often, these efforts will revolve around encouraging broad political consultations on the rules of the game; mitigating zero-sum dynamics in the political order; and encouraging responsible political leadership.
The UN is often engaged in what appear to be contentious or “flawed” elections precisely because international support is most needed in such contexts to prevent a triggering of violence. The UN approach to electoral assistance can be more clearly understood when viewed through the prism of managing and preventing conflict – one of the foundational goals of the organization.