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United Nations Global Issues

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 at the request of Member States or based on a Security Council or General Assembly mandate.

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. Electoral assistance also recognizes the principles of state sovereignty and national ownership of elections, and that there is no single model of democracy.

a man votes behind a screen
The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali provided electoral support to the authorities following a tumultuous year that included a military coup d'état, fighting between the Government and rebels, and the seizure of its northern territory by radical Islamists. (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 provides technical guidance and support in the implementation of 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, UNESCO and the United Nations Democracy Fund.

Over the last 20 years, the United Nations has provided electoral assistance to more than 110 Member States and/or territories that have requested support. UNDP, for example, has provided electoral assistance to 59 Member States in the two years leading up to the 2013 General Assembly, to develop sustainable electoral management capacities, to foster inclusive participation in elections, particularly of women and youth and other underrepresented groups, and to coordinate donor support to electoral processes. Similarly, DPKO, when mandated by the Security Council, includes electoral components in its operations which provide similar types of electoral support. Where more than one UN actor is involved in providing electoral assistance (for example, DPKO and UNDP), support should be provided in an integrated manner.

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 Co-operation 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 in Africa, 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.

stacks of ballots
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, establishing and deepening 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 Afghanistan, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Zambia, Bangladesh, Iraq, Honduras, Mali and Mexico, to name just a few. In Tunisia for example, the UN supported civil society in the October 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections and continues to provide technical assistance to the national authorities. In Libya, an integrated UN team supported the Libyan authorities in organizing and conducting the General National Congress elections on 7 July 2012. In 2013, the UN provided technical and logistical support to Malian authorities in the conduct of Presidential elections. In addition, the UN in partnership with regional organizations facilitated dialogue between the transitional government and political actors in the North of Mali.

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. Specific emphasis is often placed on building the capacity of the national electoral management bodies to implement credible elections in line with their respective legal mandates.

It is recognized that addressing the capacity of an electoral management body in isolation will not necessarily produce credible 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, political parties 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 placing greater attention on the issue of elections and violence. Some examples include the mediation and dialogue activities of the Special Adviser for Yemen, who works closely with the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP in moving the political process  forward; in Liberia the United Nations Mission (UNMIL), in close consultation with ECOWAS, engaged political actors in an effort to lessen tensions before, during and after the elections; and in Guinea, the SRSG for West Africa with close support from DPA facilitated dialogue among political actors thereby ensuring a resumption of the stalled electoral process.

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.

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