Most current research on electoral violence focuses on the causes and triggers of electoral violence, neglecting its consequences. Yet electoral violence has potentially important implications for democratic consolidation. Does election violence affect citizens’ political attitudes and behavior? If so, does pre-election violence make citizens reject democracy outright or merely the aspect of competitive leader selection? If it reduces support for democracy, does this mean that it strengthens support for autocratic forms of government?
While human suffering alone is sufficient motivation to invest in election violence prevention and mitigation, it is also important to understand the long-term consequences of such violence. In particular, answering the questions above allows us to better understand if and to what extent electoral violence impairs further democratization and undermines democratic consolidation.
In a recent working paper we have investigated these questions both theoretically and empirically. We argue that election violence has substantial but nuanced consequences: it reduces attitudinal support for democracy and turnout, but does not lead to an outright rejection of democracy or automatic support for autocracy. Rather campaign violence seems to reduce support for elections, the institutional feature triggering the violence. However, it leaves other features of democracy, such as parliamentary primacy in legislative matters, rule of law, and the control of the government through opposition and free media, unaffected.
We assessed this argument using survey data from 19 sub-Saharan African countries in late 2008/early 2009. We focus specifically on campaign violence, i.e. pre-election violence in the run-up to polling. This is the most common type of election violence (which can occur before, during, and after voting), with recent cases in Venezuela and Uganda. We find that exposure to campaign violence does indeed reduce support for democracy, the extent to which a person considers its country a democracy, satisfaction with democracy, and trust in political institutions. Moreover, respondents fearing pre-election violence are considerably less likely to cast their vote on Election Day – often the goal of campaign violence and intimidation. These findings are robust to alternative statistical specifications and hold independent of a country’s history of election violence.
Yet less support for democracy does not automatically translate into support for autocracy. Campaign violence does not increase support for autocratic forms of government, such as single-party, military, or one-man rule. We find no empirical evidence that election violence increases citizens’ support for autocracy, as some leaders might have hoped, which is a silver lining. One reason for this lack of support may be because political violence is a constant phenomenon in many autocracies, compared to election violence, which is temporarily limited.
Intrigued by this nuanced finding that campaign violence reduces support for democracy but does not boost support for autocracy, we took a closer look at how election violence affects support for the different components of democracy. Our analyses suggest that the detrimental effect of election violence is not consistent across all elements of democracy. The negative effect of campaign violence on support for democratic features is limited to competitive elections and multi-party competition, which are the institutional features most directly associated with election violence. However, experiencing campaign violence does not influence other, largely unrelated institutional features of democracy, such as parliamentary primacy in legislative matters, rule of law, and government control through parliamentary opposition and a free media.
Our findings have important theoretical and practical implications for democratic consolidation. While election violence reduces public support for certain features of democracy, which can hinder democratic deepening, it does not seem to reverse all democratic gains made. That is, there is no systematic evidence that election violence leads to regime vulnerability, as some believe. Instead, it seems to contribute to countries getting “stuck” somewhere between a full autocracy and democracy rather than transitioning one way or the other. Hence, elections might not only stabilize competitive authoritarian regimes by returning the same party to power, but also by decreasing popular support for changing the regime in either direction. For practitioners, our findings suggest that further democratization of the many hybrid regimes will benefit from reducing election violence and focusing on strengthening the non-electoral elements of democracy.
Inken von Borzyskowski is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Florida State University. Her research focuses on the intersection of international organizations and domestic governance, addressing questions around political institutions, violence, and electoral behavior.
Patrick Kuhn is Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Durham University’s School of Government and International Affairs. His research interests are in comparative political economy, in particular on questions regarding the relationship between democratic institutions, economic development, and political violence.