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Presidents who threaten election violence lose votes

What can research on Africa tell us about the U.S.?

- November 2, 2020

Several contentious elections are coming up in 2020. Voters will soon cast their ballots in the United States (today), Myanmar (Nov. 11), Burkina Faso (Nov. 22) and Venezuela (Dec. 6). How likely are these elections to include violence? And will violence affect who wins and who loses?

My research on election violence in Africa can help us answer those questions. While violence doesn’t appear to have a sizable effect on overall turnout, it does affect whom citizens vote for. Specifically, when government forces physically attack the opposition, more voters say they plan to cast their ballots for opposition candidates — often at the expense of the ruling party. Voters appear to punish incumbents for violence.

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When and where do we see election violence?

Political scientists define electoral violence as coercive force, intimidation or harassment employed before or after an election, specifically because of the election. Examples of electoral violence can include hate speech and threats of physical harm, arbitrary arrest and detention, and armed conflict that ends with people dead. In Africa, about 50 percent of elections include some violence.

Researchers find that the quality of a country’s democracy and its political institutions are key to whether an election involves violence. My analysis of more than 220 elections held in Africa from 1990 to 2013 found that the relationship between democracy and electoral violence is U-shaped, meaning that the most democratic and least democratic countries are the least likely to experience violence.

Countries in transition, perhaps moving into or out of democracy, are the most likely to have violent elections. For example, Zambia’s democracy flourished from 1991 to 2015, during which its elections were relatively peaceful. But since 2016, the government has been sliding toward autocracy — and elections in the country have become increasingly violent.

Similarly, when the public loses trust in the institutions that manage elections and adjudicate election disputes, violence increases. Political scientist Meshack Simati and I looked at this relationship in Nigeria and found that, before the nation’s 2015 and 2019 general elections, Nigerian states with the lowest levels of trust in the judiciary had the most election violence.

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Who perpetrates election violence?

In the vast majority of African election violence, the incumbent party perpetrates the attacks to intimidate voters. In Burundi, the youth wing of the ruling Imbonerakure party has been accused of viciously attacking opposition candidates and supporters before the 2010, 2015 and 2020 elections.

Before Uganda’s 2016 election, President Yoweri Museveni had opponent Kizza Besigye arrested and held under house detention at least four times on various charges.

In Kenya and Zimbabwe, political parties employ local militias or party youth groups to intimidate voters and force them to vote for certain candidates, threatening lives and property if they don’t.

Generally, the politicians using violence want to mobilize their supporters and demobilize opposition voters. It doesn’t seem to work.

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Election violence motivates the opposition

In previous research with Dorina Bekoe, we found that violence does not appear to affect voter turnout. We find no difference in aggregate voter turnout between violent elections and peaceful elections.

But turnout isn’t the only thing that violence could affect.

I studied the relationship between fear of election violence and vote intention and choice using Afrobarometer data from 32 countries surveyed in 2014 and 2015. Fear of election violence does affect whether people intend to vote in the next election — but how it affects them depends on party.

For supporters of the party in power, fear had no perceptible effect; they planned to vote at relatively high rates anyway. But fear of election violence motivates opposition supporters, who are more likely to say they will vote. Similarly, independent voters who say they fear election violence are also more likely to say that they intend to vote — and that they will vote for an opposition candidate.

That effect is modest, about a 5 to 6 percent increase in the likelihood of voting. But it’s significant. Fear of violence apparently produces a backlash against the incumbent candidates who use it, steeling opposition supporters’ commitment to vote for their candidates and decreasing independents’ support for the ruling party.

What does this mean for the U.S. election?

Of course, the United States does not have a recent history of incumbents sending the military, paramilitaries or street thugs to attack potential opposition voters. We cannot be sure that we can apply the research above to a U.S. election.

Here’s what we do know. In the United States, fear and anger are associated with increased political interest and participation. Fear of violence may not change the outcome in elections in which the margin of victory is large. But when an election is close, a leader who threatens violence could encourage opposition voters to cast their ballots and could help swing independent voters to the opposition. Elsewhere in the world, threatening violence as a campaign tool has a tendency to backfire.

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Stephanie Burchard (@smburchard) is a research staff member in the Africa Program at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va., and the author of “Electoral Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa: Causes and Consequences” (Lynne Rienner, 2015).