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Electoral Insight – Electoral Participation of Ethnocultural Communities

Electoral Insight – December 2006

Post-Conflict Elections and Ethnic Divides: Measures to Encourage Participation

Rafael López-Pintor
Former tenured professor, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; international electoral consultant

This article looks at the effects of constitutional and legal reform on ethnic divides in transitional and post-conflict elections. Useful legal provisions for an electoral system that accommodates ethnic divisions may include power-sharing arrangements and representation formulas with quotas or reserved seats, out-of-country registration and voting, inter-ethnic composition of electoral commissions, and use of minority languages in polling forms, civic education and voter information programs. Examples are presented from transitional and post-conflict societies around the world. The main conclusion is that obstacles to inter-ethnic accord can be removed more easily than incentives can be offered, especially through the electoral system. However, an electoral process during or after a civil conflict in itself translates ethnic grievances to a political scenario, mitigating or displacing armed confrontation. Post-conflict elections may widen existing ethnic divisions, since factionalism may and usually does materialize in the distribution of the vote along lines of ethnic loyalty; however, this should not be seen as a negative effect of elections but as a reflection of prevailing social reality.

The evidence summarized in this article comes from a review of scarce available literature and the direct experience of the author and some of his colleagues for the past 20 years in countries where elections were held amid severe inter-ethnic conflicts, or where such conflict was a component in the political process. Footnote 1 This piece contains mainly secondary analysis of evidence, which was assessed at first hand by the author or other researchers. The article relies heavily on and summarizes some of the main findings of a broader piece of research, which was recently commissioned from the author and published by USAID. Footnote 2 Where no specific reference is made to any author or the USAID paper after a conclusion, it should be assumed that it is my own individual assessment of the status questionis, pending stronger evidence for a different interpretation.

Ethnic divides and political conflict

Inter-ethnic confrontation has been of paramount importance in shaping the current map of civil and international conflicts. It has also conditioned intervention by the international community, both as peacemaker and technical assistance provider, for elections, as for other fields. Footnote 3

By feeding on one of the most deeply rooted social identities, ethnic divides tend to persist even after one or more elections. In fact, post-conflict elections are frequently envisaged as a first step toward democracy, and as an exit strategy from armed conflict. Consequently, the ethnicity factor is usually taken into consideration when devising the legal provisions under which the elections are to be held. An effective electoral system should address the need of society to accommodate its political cleavages: territorial, ethnocultural, social class or other.

Alleviating ethnic divides through electoral rules

A standard electoral assistance package in countries with ethnic cleavages would include a component for devising electoral rules to accommodate ethnic concerns. Such concerns have been brought to the agenda of peace negotiators at least since the pacification of Namibia and Nicaragua in the 1980s. Many other countries around the world followed in the 1990s and 2000s.

The number and kind of legal provisions dealing specifically with ethnicity and elections vary among countries, mainly depending on the depth of inter-ethnic confrontation, the political will of the contenders, and the extent and effectiveness of the international presence in the field. The following list summarizes seven main legal measures enacted during the last couple of decades, with examples of countries where they were applied. Later, some cases of transitional and post-conflict elections are discussed more extensively.

1. Constitutional provisions for the system of government and power-sharing arrangements, signed before the first elections

The constitution may provide for a federation of ethnically based republics (Bosnia and Herzegovina) or special arrangements for provinces (Quebec at Confederation in 1867). An administrative division of the country with ethnically defined territories may have been traditionally preserved or recently established (Iraq, Spain). Power-sharing arrangements may include a national unity government with the participation of all main parties (e.g. South Africa in 1994, Afghanistan in 2004 and Iraq in 2006); a cabinet with president and prime minister from majority and minority parties, respectively (Kosovo in 2002); a formally tripartite presidency (Bosnia and Herzegovina); or a collegial body of president and several vice-presidents, who will guarantee inter-ethnic representation in the political executive in some unwritten consensus among constitution makers. In Iraq, the constitution establishes a form of tripartite presidency, with a president and two vice-presidents (the Presidential Council), which de facto if not by law is meant to integrate the three main ethnic or religious groups at the top of executive power (Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds).

2. Inclusive representation formulas that provide for list-proportional representation (PR) in sub-national constituencies

This mechanism has been historically used in a number of European countries (Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain). In multi-ethnic Latin American countries – mainly Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru – ethnic cleavages are alleviated by PR in provincial and municipal constituencies, though sporadic upsurges triggering political revolt have occurred (Mexico's Chiapas in the 1990s, Ecuador in 2000, and today's Bolivia). In Africa, also, representation for strong territorially based ethnic groups is legally ensured by PR in provincial constituencies (e.g. South Africa), or by simple majority rule (first past the post) in ethnically more homogeneous small constituencies (e.g. Ethiopia and Nigeria).

3. Quotas and reserved seats for ethnic minorities, similar to gender balance mechanisms

Recent examples of reserved seats are found in Afghanistan (for certain minorities, like the Kuchi), Albania (for the Southern Greek minority), Kosovo (for non-Albanian minorities) and Palestine (for Christians and Samaritans). Nicaragua has quotas for each minority on the Atlantic Coast.

4. Voter registration provisions that encourage minority ethnic groups

Voter registration provisions are often used to mobilize and integrate ethnic minorities into the political process. This is usually done by permitting registration from outside the country; and facilitating voter and candidate registration with flexible regulations that reduce political and logistical barriers.

Voter registration and voting from third countries was successful in 1990 post-war Nicaragua, when exiles registered and voted at the border with Honduras and Costa Rica. In this case, ethnic conflict was only partly the cause of the displaced populations; in the other examples below, it was the main reason for exile.

Afghan election workers count ballot papers in Kabul after Afghanistan's landmark parliamentary elections on September 18, 2005.

In Kosovo, municipal elections in 2000 could not overcome the reluctance by Kosovan Serbs to register and participate. They did, however, come on board for the parliamentary elections of 2001, probably due to incentives offered by the international community and by legislation. All Serb factions were encouraged to register under the banner of only one party, which they did; and legal provisions ensured a high level of representation through the mechanisms of PR plus reserved minority seats. Nevertheless, and though they registered massively in 2001, the Serbs withdrew again in the second municipal elections in 2002 and before the general election in 2005.

External registration and voting was applied in Afghanistan and Iraq (2005); particularly among populations displaced into Pakistan and Iran in the case of the Afghani elections, and into Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt in the Iraqi case. In both elections, citizens living abroad voted in large numbers, although considerable operational costs were incurred. By contrast, in Angola in 1992, Mozambique in 1994, and Liberia in 1997, similar projects were prepared by international agencies and national actors, but were never put into practice despite the sizable communities living in neighbouring countries. Independently of its costs, out-of-country registration and voting can be considered a successful tool for inter-ethnic harmony – so long as actual turnout of the relevant population is encouraged and facilitated.

5. Adding ethnic sensitivity to electoral procedures by inter-ethnic composition of electoral commissions at national and sub-national levels

Structuring the electoral administration on a multi-ethnic basis has been used as an integrative mechanism in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ecuador, Iraq, Kosovo, Macedonia, Nigeria and South Africa. During peacekeeping operations, elections tend to be managed by international officials, with national officers playing a secondary role. This notwithstanding, it should be recognized that multi-ethnic composition of the national component of the electoral administration has generally played a positive role in balancing both internal functions and public confidence in the electoral authority.

6. Use of minority languages for polling and educational materials

Most often, minority languages are limited to voter information materials, rather than being extensively used in election documents. Examples can be found in most of the countries mentioned in this section. The author was recently involved in drafting such materials in countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Iraq and Nicaragua.

7. Efforts to eliminate hate speech, through media development projects (funded mainly by the UN, OSCE and USAID) and media monitoring

Projects develop local media, support international media operations, mainly radio and television, or support media monitoring, using standard methodologies and publicizing the results. Monitoring involves systematic quantitative and qualitative daily analysis of print, TV and radio content through statistical sampling and automatic data processing. Periodic public reports feed open debate on the issues. Simply exposing certain information in a professional manner can have beneficial effects. Media monitoring exercises have been implemented in almost all the countries mentioned in this article, and this practice should be considered both generally informative and strategically useful as a tool to control hate speech and expenses during campaigns, among other uses. Footnote 4

It goes without saying that measures like the seven described above are no guarantee of success at integrating ethnic minorities or even building bridges between them. Again, experience shows that it is easier to remove legal barriers than to offer real incentives for political and social integration among ethnically confrontative populations. Footnote 5

Three cases from transitional elections, and elections in wartorn societies

As described above, examples of accommodating ethnocultural cleavages through the ballot box abound in early democratic transitions as well as in wartorn environments. Three cases are presented with more detail here: post-Franco Spain, post-war Nicaragua, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Ethnocultural cleavages are part of the history of Spain, especially in the Basque country and Catalonia. They escalated after the absolute centralization policies of the House of Bourbon in the late 18th century, and again with the civil war (1936–1939) and Franco's subsequent 40-year dictatorship. In the Basque country and Catalonia, people were deprived of a number of historical rights, including the use of their native language. The armed ETA of the Basques declared a permanent ceasefire only in May 2006, after more than 30 years of violent attacks. In Catalonia, public outcry and massive demonstrations against the national government and centralization became routine at the end of the Franco regime and during the first few years of democratization after Franco's death in 1975.

The 1978 constitution drastically changed the institutional architecture of Spain by establishing, among other measures, an asymmetric federation of 17 "autonomous communities," ranging from the Basque country and Catalonia with a quasi-federal status to other communities with a lower degree of autonomy. There is a common official language (Spanish) and three other official languages in the corresponding territories (Catalan, Euskera and Galego). Autonomous governments manage some 40% of all public expenditures, with the remainder handled by the national government (35%) and local governments (25%). A parliamentary system of government, with the political executive emerging from the legislature, was established at all three levels.

Spain's Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, bottom right, listens as the Basque regional President, Juan José Ibarretxe, left, speaks in the Spanish Parliament in Madrid, in February 2005.

Since 1977, Spanish legislation has established PR at the provincial level, enabling relevant political forces to obtain seats in the national legislature and allowing Basque and Catalan communities solid parliamentary representation in Madrid. Footnote 6 Later devolution statutes empowered autonomous governments to legislate their own parliamentary elections and the kind and number of constituencies for legislative elections inside the community. For example, the Basque statute established that each of three provinces elects the same number of representatives (20 each) independently of population, so that the different Basque communities as defined by old historical boundaries are equally represented. Electoral campaigning is conducted in the local language as well as in Spanish, and voter information and election materials are available in both languages.

Attesting to the effectiveness of the constitutional and legal framework described above in mitigating and integrating deep historical ethnocultural differences in Spain is the maintenance of a wide consensus around the 1978 constitution, the vitality of self-rule in general, and the progressive pacification of the Basque country, where the political arm of ETA (under varying labels) never fully withdrew from the polls and the Basque and municipal assemblies. As for the legal framework, the current electoral law (in fact a special majority law) is but an updated and expanded version of a provisional executive decree of April 1977, enacted one month before the first democratic elections were held. Such was the negotiating and technical ability of those who made it possible, sometimes in clandestine meetings between the transitional government and the still outlawed opposition parties.


A woman casts her vote in Nicaragua's November 4, 2001, national election.

Nicaragua offered an early example of bridging ethnic divides after an armed conflict by legal measures favouring ethnic minorities in its two Atlantic Coast regions, where indigenous populations are Miskitu, Creole, Sumo, Garifuna, Rama and Mestizo. The Miskitu had strongly resisted and been repressed by the Sandinista government in the early 1980s. After the civil war, the 1987 devolution statute for those regions (Ley de Autonomía) established PR for each regional legislature, with the provision that the first candidate of all party lists in 10 out of 30 multi-member constituencies should be a member of the ethnic minority predominant in the constituency. Footnote 7

The main ethnic party is YATAMA, although it has never won the largest plurality in either of the two regions, which are governed by either the Sandinista FSLN or the older Liberal PLC. A historical demographic trend in these regions has been the increasing population of criollo people from the west of the country. They constitute the overwhelming majority of the electorate. The devolution statute of 1987 was meant precisely to guarantee the civil and political rights of minorities by making sure, among other measures, that they obtain parliamentary and municipal representation.

Electoral rules of PR and minority quotas have been consistently applied since then. Representation of ethnic minorities has been guaranteed, although not without some recurrent problems, which have repeated the confrontation between national and indigenous parties. Given population movements, conflict frequently relates to the allocation of seats to certain constituencies and the later allocation of some seats to a given party. Such conflicts have been traditionally resolved by written agreement (neither legal nor illegal) between the political and electoral authorities.

Recently, conflict arose around the allocation of a disputed seat between the indigenous YATAMA party and the main national parties after the March 2006 regional council elections.

YATAMA resorted to mass demonstrations and violent action against the regional electoral authority; activists surrounded its headquarters and detained its chairman for several days. After days of mounting tension and intense mediation, the decision was made by the national electoral body, and accepted by all political parties, that the disputed seat should go to YATAMA. Setting aside the specifics of the situation, this decision was taken in the spirit of the law privileging minority electoral rights in those regions, rather than the letter of the law on constituency boundaries. Further legal clarification is clearly desirable, since the conflict tends to re-emerge at every election. But still the point can be made that legal measures ensuring ethnic minority representation have been working effectively: the former violent conflict between the national government and regional minorities has ceased since 1987, and representation has been guaranteed to the satisfaction of all electoral contenders.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Members of the newly elected multi-ethnic state presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, (left to right) Bosnian Croat, Dragan Cavic; Bosnian Serb, Mirko Sarovic; and Bosnian Albanian, Sulejman Tihic, take the oath of office during the inauguration in Sarajevo, in October 2002.

The Balkans, and Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular, offer a complex constitutional and electoral legal framework for addressing inter-ethnic issues. First, an institutional design was created that included a federal republic (Srpska) within a confederated state. Second, a tripartite presidency for the federation represents the three main ethnic communities (Serbs, Albanians and Croats). The ethnically based tripartite presidency was intended to have an integrating effect. It may not have worked that way, though, as ethnic tensions abetted paralysis.

List PR and reserved seat provisions ensured electoral representation of all ethnic groups; the possibility of inter-ethnic alliances also exists, among other provisions, although such alliances have never formed.

The electoral administration was structured on a multi-ethnic basis. Before the international electoral authority ended in 2003, a professional association of electoral officers without any ethnic distinction among participants was created, and it started functioning with the support of IFES, a U.S.-based international agency specializing in technical assistance to electoral bodies. The transfer of authority from international to domestic management happened progressively during 2002 and 2003, more than five years after the first election in 1998. By comparison, East Timor made its transfer two years after the first election, but Kosovo has not yet completed it, six years after the first election in 2000.

Voter and candidate registration was greatly eased for Croats and Albanians in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as it was later for Serbs in Kosovo, by facilitating out-of-country registration and voting. This involved not only adequate legal provisions, but also immense investment in security and logistics.

Minority languages were widely used as an integrating tool in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where all minority languages were used for all official forms. Not doing so could be considered a disenfranchisement, in effect, of certain populations – those that would have difficulty reading a ballot not in their language. With somewhat less inclusiveness, materials for civic education and voter information were printed or narrated in only the more widely spoken languages.

Support for civic education campaigns encouraging participation for all communities is invariably a component of most donor agencies' democracy programs. Such support in Bosnia and Herzegovina was directly provided by the intervening international electoral administration, and extensively implemented by domestic non-governmental organizations, many of which formed around these activities.

The results in Bosnia and Herzegovina should be considered positive. Although the early elections under the Dayton accords widened ethnic divides by pushing the different communities to organize along ethnic lines, they did stop the fighting, as the factions had to concentrate on electoral preparations. As it happened, elections proved a mechanism to bring ethnic communities to the more civilized game of democratic politics, although full reconciliation remains elusive to this day. The transfer of electoral authority from international to domestic hands was implemented gradually but effectively, and successive elections have been taking place since 1998 in an orderly and transparent manner.


The international community has been supporting electoral processes in transitional and post-conflict societies as a tool for national reconciliation and democracy building. There are areas where democratic and electoral assistance has proved effective. One is the building of a professional electoral administration and helping it become sustainable; another is supporting civic education campaigns alongside the electoral process. These are among the few areas of democratic assistance where observers have unanimously reported positive results. Footnote 8

Electoral experts, field practitioners and analysts of democratic assistance have assessed the effects of elections and electoral rules on ethnic divides as moderately positive, more often than as neutral or negative. Footnote 9 Experience shows that adequate legislation and other election-related measures can help, but inter-ethnic tensions cannot be easily overcome by electoral measures alone. Elections do not aim to bridge deep-rooted ethnocultural cleavages; rather, they seek to help rivals cope with those differences in an enlightened democratic manner. Footnote 10 Examples can also be offered of countries where the ethnic divide was deepened by the electoral experience (Angola, Liberia and Ethiopia). Particularly in Africa, the risk exists that political parties will make ethnic divisions more rigid. There, parties have formed along ethnic lines, reflecting the underlying social pluralism. Footnote 11

A number of conclusions have been drawn from recent research about steps taken to minimize the effect of elections on ethnic polarization. The following deserve transcription here. Footnote 12

  • As in other areas of social conflict, obstacles to inter-ethnic accord can more easily be removed than incentives can be offered, especially through the electoral system. Obstacles that have more often been removed include, among others, constitutional and legal barriers to citizen participation and representation; legal or actual barriers to the use of minority languages in civic education, voter information and electoral materials; hate speech practices in the mass media; and mechanisms or structures that make electoral administration non-transparent and untrustworthy to political actors and voters.
  • Moreover, post-conflict elections may have a widening effect on existing ethnic divisions, if only by crystallizing ethnic polarization at the ballot box. In fact, an electoral process during or after a civil conflict in itself translates ethnic grievances to a political scenario, as opposed to warfare. If electoral politics mitigates or displaces armed confrontation, ethnic factionalism may and usually does materialize in the distribution of the vote along lines of ethnic loyalty. Even if electoral legislation attempts to mitigate this effect by allowing multi-ethnic lists and alliances, such legal instruments may not appeal to the political elites (as in Bosnia and Herzegovina), who may decide not to use them. This should not be seen as a negative output of elections, but as a reflection of prevailing social reality.
  • All measures aiming to deactivate or alleviate conflict should be seen as parts of an integrated approach, rather than as separate courses of action. Removing obstacles to participation and inter-ethnic reconciliation should include the following:
    • constitutional and legal provisions, e.g. power-sharing arrangements, inclusive formulas of representation and inter-ethnic composition of the electoral management body
    • facilitation of voter and candidate registration, including out-of-country registration and voting
    • civic education campaigns encouraging participation by all communities
    • use of minority languages in voting procedures and civic education
    • elimination of hate speech through democratic media development projects and media monitoring with standard methodologies, followed by periodic publication of the results


Footnote 1 These countries include, among others, the author's own country of Spain, in Europe; Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia in the Balkans; Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine in Central Asia and the Middle East; Cambodia in South Asia; Angola, Comoros, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Liberia, South Africa, Mozambique and Nigeria in Africa; Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua in Central America. In some of these countries, the author served as chief electoral officer for an observer mission of either the United Nations (Mozambique, El Salvador) or the European Union (Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Guatemala). In the remaining countries, he provided senior consulting support to either the national electoral authority or an international organization. Focused conversations with senior expert colleagues holding high field executive and consultative responsibility in relevant countries brought information and insight that academic literature or field reports, at the moment, are in no condition to provide. My gratitude goes especially to Jeff Fischer, Ron Gould, Peter Erben and Jarrett Blanc, as colleagues and good friends, who always responded to my queries with talent and generosity.

Footnote 2 The research assessment project covered 14 different countries with elections conducted in a post-conflict situation. It included a comprehensive review of the scarce academic literature on a number of topics relating to international electoral assistance, one of which was elections and ethnic divides. After the main research findings were compiled and analyzed, a policy paper was published and made available on the USAID Web site ( See Rafael López-Pintor, Postconflict Elections and Democratization: An Experience Review (Washington, D.C.: USAID, 2005). Moreover, there is an excellent global source on the legal specifics of different electoral systems, including countries with deep ethnic differences in Andrew Reynolds, Ben Reilly and Andrew Ellis, eds., Electoral System Design: The New International IDEA Handbook (Stockholm: International IDEA, 2005). Some country case studies of different instruments that deal with inter-ethnic conflicts can be found in Peter Harris and Ben Reilly, eds., Democracy and Deep-Rooted Conflicts: Options for Negotiators (Stockholm: International IDEA, 1998).

Footnote 3 For more details, see Rafael López-Pintor, "Reconciliation Elections: A Post-Cold War Experience," in Krishna Kumar, ed., Rebuilding Societies After Civil War: Critical Roles for International Assistance (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 1997), pp. 43–61.

Footnote 4 An excellent media monitoring handbook was recently produced by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and is available free at

Footnote 5 For a comprehensive list of these legal mechanisms, see OSCE/ODIHR, Guidelines for Reviewing a Legal Framework for Elections (Warsaw, 2001); Guy S. Goodwin-Gill, Free and Fair Elections (Geneva: IPU, 2006).

Footnote 6 The Provisional Decree of April 1977 was translated in essence into the 1978 constitution, the 1985 electoral law, and the devolution statutes of the Basque country and Catalonia, which are currently undergoing upgrading and revision.

Footnote 7 Article 142 of the electoral law.

Footnote 8 Thomas Carothers, Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999); Krishna Kumar, ed., Postconflict Elections, Democratization, and International Assistance (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 1998); Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers, eds., Funding Virtue: Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000), pp. 77–104.

Footnote 9 Thomas D. Sisk, Power Sharing and International Mediation in Ethnic Conflicts (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press and Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, 1996), pp. 27–45; Ben Reilly and Andrew Reynolds, eds., Electoral Systems and Conflict in Divided Societies (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999); Harris et al., Democracy and Deep-Rooted Conflicts, pp. 118–201;Krishna Kumar, "International Assistance for Post-Conflict Elections," in Peter Burnell, ed., Democracy Assistance: International Co-operation for Democratization (London: Frank Cass, 2000), p. 205; Karin Von Hippel, ed., Democracy by Force: U.S. Military Intervention in the Post-Cold War World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 202–204. A more critical view is found in Marina Ottaway, Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003), pp. 202–203.

Footnote 10 López-Pintor, Postconflict Elections, pp. 16, 17.

Footnote 11 Marina Ottaway, "Social Movements, Professionalization of Reform, and Democracy in Africa," in Ottaway and Carothers, Funding Virtue, p. 80.

Footnote 12 López-Pintor, Postconflict Elections, p. 27.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.