How Elections Can Lead to Peace

Making Negotiated Settlements Last

Afghan women register to vote in Kabul, April 2018. Mohammed Ismail / Reuters

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.


Ending civil conflicts is a messy business. When negotiating a settlement, especially in a conflict without a clear victor, former combatants must

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