Democracy and Elections
The spread of democracy around the world has been a significant achievement of our times. Elections sit at the heart of this, making possible the act of self-determination envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations. The Organization’s history is interwoven with elections extending back to shortly after its founding, when, in the late 1940s, it observed elections on the Korean Peninsula. During the subsequent era of trusteeship and decolonization, it supervised and observed plebiscites, referenda and elections worldwide. Today, as the call for democratic change becomes louder in the Middle East and North Africa region and elsewhere, the United Nations continues to be a trusted impartial actor. The United Nations continues to provide electoral assistance to a broad range of countries, only at the request of Member States.
The provision of electoral assistance by the United Nations is a team effort involving a number of programmes, funds, agencies and departments and is closely regulated by the General Assembly.
The Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs is designated by the General Assembly as the UN Focal Point for Electoral Assistance Activities, with a leadership role in ensuring system-wide coherence and consistency and in strengthening the institutional memory and the development, dissemination and issuance of United Nations electoral assistance policies.
Electoral assistance is based on the principle established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the will of the people, as expressed through periodic and genuine elections, shall be the basis of government authority, while also recognizing the principles of state sovereignty and national ownership of elections.
The United Nations Mission for Stabilization in Haiti (MINUSTAH) coordinated all international support to the post-earthquake electoral process, including setting up 1,500 registration centres for displaced voters, and identifying new locations to replace those that had been damaged or destroyed. (UN Photo)
The Electoral Assistance Division, within the Department of Political Affairs, supports the United Nations Focal Point in ensuring system-wide coherence and consistency in the provision of United Nations electoral assistance as well as developing electoral policy, and monitors around 50 electoral projects at any given time.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is the UN system’s main provider of technical electoral assistance, which is delivered as part of its mandate to lead democratic governance assistance at the country level.
The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) also has a major operational role in providing security, technical advice and logistical support to national authorities administering elections in peacekeeping mission settings.
Other UN actors involved in providing electoral assistance include the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Volunteers, UN Women, the United Nations Office for Project Services, and United Nations Democracy Fund.
Over the last 20 years, the United Nations has provided electoral assistance to more than 100 Member States. UNDP, for example, provides electoral assistance in an average of 60 Member States annually, to develop sustainable electoral management capacities, foster inclusive participation in elections, particularly of women and youth and other underrepresented groups, and coordinate donor support to electoral processes. Similarly, DPKO, when mandated by the Security Council, includes electoral components in its operations which provide the same types of electoral support in an integrated manner. In exceptional circumstances, DPKO responds to requests to assess or even validate the integrity of an electoral process, such as in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010.
The United Nations also has established relations with regional and intergovernmental organizations involved in electoral assistance, including the African Union, the European Union, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Southern African Development Community. Other partners are the many international non-governmental organizations working in the field of electoral assistance. These include institutions such as the Carter Center, the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. These relationships provide opportunities for collaboration on electoral support activities as well as for sharing lessons and experiences.
For the referendum on the independence of South Sudan, the United Nations Mission in Sudan and UNDP provided technical assistance through the UN Integrated Referendum and Electoral Division. The Secretary-General also established a Panel to monitor the referendum. (UN Photo)
UN electoral assistance has been a crucial and successful component in peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and establishing democratic governance. As democracy has spread, so has the role of elections as the means to establish legitimate government. The United Nations has been engaged in elections in all regions of the world, with assistance provided recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Lesotho, Kyrgyzstan, Timor-Leste, and Mexico to name just a few. Two major UN contributions in 2011-2012 were the rapid assistance to Tunisian authorities in response to a request for technical support for their transition; and early and sustained support to the Libyan authorities through their transition and first constituent assembly election.
Electoral events in each country are unique, and reflect an individual country’s political and historical characteristics. While no single electoral system is equally suited to all countries, the electoral process should adhere to obligations and commitments outlined in international human rights instruments. The United Nations therefore carefully addresses each request following a series of steps: official request; assessment; design; implementation; monitoring and evaluation; and lessons learning.
It is recognized that addressing the capacity of an electoral management body in isolation will not necessarily produce free and fair elections. There also needs to be a focus on the overall political environment in which the elections take place. The United Nations therefore also makes efforts to build capacity outside the electoral authorities. This involves working with voters, the media and civil society, as well as other actors and institutions of democratic governance such as parliament and the judiciary.
Further recognizing that even a technically good election may still ignite underlying grievances and tensions, the United Nations is also placing greater attention on the issue of elections and violence. One example is the mediation and dialogue activities of the Special Adviser for Yemen, who worked closely with the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP.
The main goal of United Nations electoral assistance is to support Member States in holding periodic, inclusive and transparent elections that are credible and popularly perceived as such and establishing nationally sustainable electoral processes.