Transitioning from War to Peace: The Dilemmas of Transitional Elections

The transition from war to peace is a long and often complicated process involving a number of components that range from the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of former combatants to agreements on the form and structure that national (and local) governments will take after the conflict. Elections are one of the key steps of the peace process and for some they even constitute ‘the centerpiece of efforts to rehabilitate countries devastated by civil conflict’ (Flores and Nooruddin, 2012).

Elections can offer a unique opportunity to rebuild a society and shape the institutions that will govern it. They can be instrumental for the prevention and termination of conflict (Lindberg, 2003; Diamond, 2006). They can address the structural issues that caused the conflict, prevent combatants from returning to fighting and ensure peaceful competition amongst different actors. They can substitute the routine of fighting for the habit of dialogue and voting and, ultimately, they can give legitimacy to the newly elected government and to the entire political system. However, elections can also increase the risk of conflict. Campaigns can promote divisions and polarize society as well as foster the emergence of new political groups with conflicting aims. Competition over power can become violent and losers of elections might not be so ready to accept defeat.

Therefore, conflict and elections can act as substitutes or complements of each other (Dunning, 2011). And, whether combatants will hand in their weapons and join politics or use elections and/or their results to return to violence will depend on aspects such as the timing and sequencing of elections, the choice of electoral system and election administration institutions, and the quality of the elections themselves. So, when can elections lead to stability and when do they fuel further conflict? And, how can elections facilitate or consolidate a peaceful transition?

Transitions from Conflict

To answer these questions on 30 November and 1 December at The Hague, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) organized the thematic workshop ‘Transitioning from War to Peace’. Bringing together experts and practitioners from a wide range of institutions [1] and with in-depth knowledge and experience in transitional elections, the workshop focused on three key issues surrounding transitions from conflict: sequencing the roadmap to elections; building a legal and institutional framework; and international involvement in elections. 

So far, research has shown us that the context in which elections take place is extremely important. For instance, some studies argue that some countries suffer a ‘conflict trap’ and that elections held in “dangerous places” with previous experience of violence are more likely to lead to conflict (Collier, 2009). In relation to this, other scholars show that conflict is more likely in new democracies rather than in polities with more established institutions (Flores and Nooruddin, 2012). Moreover, others argue that certain favourable conditions such as a decisive victory, peacekeeping, and strong political, administrative and judicial institutions - amongst others - can mitigate the risk of elections failing (Cederman et al, 2013).

Context Matters

International IDEA’s workshop allowed us to confirm this by examining fresh evidence from seven empirical cases – Bougainville, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Central African Republic, Colombia, Liberia, Nepal and Northern Ireland. Context matters. After a conflict, which is the best type of electoral system to implement? Should there be national AND local elections? Which should be held first? Should there be a new Constitution, and a preceding Constitutional Assembly? Should the peace agreement be followed by a referendum? There is no single formula for peace. The solution for Colombia’s conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) guerrilla, originating in political exclusion and evolving to incorporate illicit drug trafficking, cannot be the same for Bougainville and Papua New Guinea, where a struggle for self-determination involved – amongst other issues - a mining conflict.

This is why solutions to a conflict need to be context specific as well as flexible in terms of the choice of electoral system, the electoral management body, the type of elections and their timing. There are no standard solutions and any strategy for peace making must allow for adaptation and accommodation. A good example is the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement which put an end to the war in Bosnia Herzegovina. In relation to the conduct of post conflict elections, Annex 3 of the agreement, with only 5 very general articles made the peace process flexible and adaptable. The annex described the need to ensure a politically neutral environment; the role of the OSCE supervising the conduct of national elections (allowing for the possibility for it to also organize cantonal and municipal elections too, if feasible); and the need to establish an Election Commission (without setting specific electoral rules for subjects such as registration or campaigning). It did not set a specific date for elections, it rather left it open indicating they should take place within six months after the agreement, and allowed for a three month delay if necessary.

Symbolic Importance

It is argued that post conflict elections are more often of symbolic importance as they signal that legitimacy – a necessary step in reconstruction - has been restored (Reilly, 2017). However, elections not only act as a symbol for the end of a conflict; they can also mark the beginning of a new phase of violence. Therefore, national and international actors have to be careful and pay attention to the context where elections take place if they want them to be an instrument for peace rather than a catalyst for further conflict.

The Electoral Integrity Project would like to thank International IDEA for the organization of this workshop and looks forward to the forthcoming paper and key recommendations.


Miguel Lara Otaola is the Area Director of International Services for Mexico's Electoral Tribunal. He is a practitioner and scholar in the field of democratic governance and election support. He has held several advisory, programme management and field positions at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE) and the Electoral Integrity Project, amongst others. He has participated as an electoral observer in a number of missions in Asia, Australia, the EU and Latin America. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics (LSE) and a PhD in Politics from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom.


[1] The Constitutional Court of the Central African Republic, the Central Election Commission of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the University of West Virginia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE-ODIHR), the Autonomous University of Madrid, Centro de Análisis y Asuntos Públicos from Colombia, the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Election Assistance Division, the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, the United States Institute of Peace, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the Office of the United Nations Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, the European Institute of Peace, the Belgian Parliament, the Network on Peace Operations and the Université de Montrèal, the University of Edinburgh, King’s College London, International IDEA and the Electoral Integrity Project.