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Elections are good, right? Well, Not Always

April 11, 2016   /   by Buzz McClain

Tom Flores

Free elections are the cornerstones of democracy, but there are times when holding elections can hurt the cause of democracy, particularly when a country is in crisis, according to a George Mason University researcher.

That’s the conclusion in the book-length study by Thomas Flores, an assistant professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and Irfan Nooruddin of Georgetown University.

The common belief is to rush the holding of elections after a civil war, coup d’etat or invasion.

“That ends the repression, right?” Flores said. “Sadly, that’s not true.” 

In fact, elections held too soon after conflicts end tend to undermine the peace in those countries. That seems counterintuitive, but Flores says the data hold true.

Flores said he and Nooruddin “are not the first to notice that quick elections after civil war tend to go badly,” Flores said. “But we’re among the first to rigorously test what happens in post-war countries.

“We were able to show those elections held within two years of a conflict being over in a new democracy are likely to end in political instability.” 


Guatemala is an example. The South American country, Flores said, “is considered a positive, successful postwar case of a stable democratic country with successive, fair elections.

“But what we show in the book is Guatemalan voters have no more faith in democracy today than they had in 1995,” when the 36-year civil war ended. “There is widespread distrust and continuing insecurity among Guatemalan voters.”

On the horizon is the oft-delayed general election scheduled to be held in Somalia this year. Flores has his doubts that it will work.

“It’s a poor country with a weak government and decades of civil conflict,” he said.

Flores is hesitant to offer political solutions, but the research indicates a few things that seem to increase success.

“U.N. peacekeeping operations on the ground help a lot,” he said. “They increase confidence of all the parties that the elections will be somewhat fair and they won’t violently punish voters.

“The other solution is to simply delay the election and allow a period of institution-building. That’s a natural interpretation of the results, but I wouldn’t say it’s the automatic right thing to do in a lot of places.”

The book, to be published in September, is called “Elections in Hard Times: Building Stronger Democracies in the 21st Century” (Cambridge University Press).