South Sudan’s 2010 elections and 2011 referendum are possibly the only positive experiences that the South Sudanese have had with political processes in their short history – and the electoral institutions that organized them are vital to the country’s ongoing peace process and to its political future. So why has international support to the National Election Commission come to a halt?
In conflict-prone and divided societies, the independence of the election management body is a key feature that can have a significant impact on peacebuilding.
South Sudan’s Electoral Commission was established as a body independent of the government with an authority to regulate, conduct and supervise electoral events; establish boundary delimitation; organize voter registration; and deliver civic education. In other words, it will decide highly politicized issues. Any actual or perceived malpractice could undermine the credibility of elections and lead to renewed violence.
Unfortunately, the Commission’s early tasks are currently taking place without any international advice or other types of support. With South Sudan having little experience with democratic processes, all Commissioners being new to the job and the organization of elections, the chances for credible elections are low without international guidance.
The issue is not resources. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has nearly $75 million available for immediate support to political processes in South Sudan, including support to the Election Commission. The United Nations has identified requirements for technical assistance for the Commission. Other donors, such as the European Union and Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development also indicated its intention to support the Commission.
Instead, failure to support the Electoral Commission is due to poor analysis: Shortly after the outbreak of violence in December 2013, the international community decided that supporting the Election Commission is tantamount to supporting the government. This is shortsighted, though.
The Commission was created by the National Elections Act in July 2012, the Commissioners appointed by President and confirmed by the National Legislative Assembly and the institution supported both politically and financially by the international community, principally the United States.
Given the developments in December and subsequent violence that ensued, focusing on humanitarian assistance is entirely justifiable. But as other services and support are being reestablished in South Sudan, preparing for future elections is key to supporting the peace process.
There are three key reasons why continuing to support the Election Commission now is critical to the international community’s broader objectives in South Sudan.
First, the withdrawal of international support to the Commission is only more likely to make the Commission vulnerable to government influence and susceptible to perceptions of bias. If we allow the Commission to be “captured” by one side, it will be that much harder to prepare for credible elections.
Second, every time we have a comparable situation, experts lament the compressed timeline under which elections are held and claim that it would have been useful to have had more time to develop institutions and systems necessary to organize a credible election.
And third, it is unclear when political leaders might decide that elections are necessary, so being prepared to conduct an election on as little notice as possible is an important way to support the peace process. Just this week the parties to the conflict announced the intention to form a unity government within 60 days. This is a reminder that political processes have a life of their own and they should not be held up by failure to make technical preparations.
All these three can be addressed if existing resources are put to use immediately.
Tihana Bartulac Blanc is a Senior Associate specializing in elections at Creative Associates International. Creative is a subcontractor to Democracy International’s USAID-funded SUCCESS project in South Sudan. The opinions in this article are Ms. Bartulac Blanc’s alone.