The three most lethal elections of 2018 were the congressional and municipal elections in Mexico (July 1), the general election in Pakistan (July 25), and the parliamentary and district elections in Afghanistan (Oct. 25). In these cases, lethality is measured through loss of life, and each of these elections counted loss of life in triple digits.
Why were these elections more violent than others? Each of these countries had experienced electoral violence before, but why was the intensity of last year’s violence so much greater than in past elections?
We can learn more by examining the unique characteristics of each election and how they compare with each other.
Mexico’s Electoral Violence
By one estimate, at least 48 candidates for congressional and municipal offices and 84 political party officials were assassinated during the Mexican election campaign. These murders occurred throughout the country, in 22 of Mexico’s 31 states, and were not exclusive to any single political party.
These deaths were coupled with at least 543 other incidents including kidnaping, extortion, and other forms of violent intimidation. By one BBC report this was termed “the most violent election campaign in Mexico in living memory”. The incidents largely occurred in the pre-election phase. Mexico’s narco-gangs are seen to be behind the killings in order to maintain local safe havens and transit points for their illicit activities.
Pakistan’s Electoral Violence
In one pre-election bombing claimed by ISIS, at least 149 people were killed at a campaign rally in Tustung. Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies estimates that at least 230 people lost their lives and over 400 were wounded in 22 election-related terrorist attacks in July alone. Suicide bombers also attacked polling stations on Election Day, in one case killing at least 31 people.
While Islamic insurgencies such as the Taliban and ISIS were behind these mass casualty attacks, some violence between political rivals was also experienced with shootings and clashes reported in in Mardan, Rajanpur, Khipro and Kohistan.
Afghanistan’s Electoral Violence
In the pre-election phase, violent incidents included a suicide bombing at a voter registration site on April 22 which killed 57 people, with children among the dead. There was an August 25 bombing near to an election office that killed three people.
In the pre-election phase, most of the target locations were mosques and schools, which were doubling as voter registration sites. However, on October 13, 22 people were killed by a bombing at a campaign rally in Takhar province. Candidates were targeted for assassination.
On Election Day, dozens of people were killed in various attacks on polling stations across the country, with the Taliban claiming to carry out such attacks. Suicide bombings, grenades, improvised explosive devices and rocket attacks were employed against polling stations. Police officers were ambushed in Ghor province, with four officers killed in the assault. Other attacks included kidnappings and forms of intimidation. Nearly a third of polls were closed for security reasons. The Taliban and ISIS have taken credit for the incidents.
This election is seen as the country’s most violent election since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2004.
What do they have in common?
- Main perpetrators were not political rivals
In each case, the main perpetrators of this election-related violence were not political rivals (except for some incidents in Pakistan). That is to say that the violence was not being employed as a means to win the election.
In the case of Mexico, it was criminal gangs seeking to control local governance to establish safe haven and transit point for illicit activities and drug shipments. And, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it was the Taliban and ISIS, who were not seeking to win an election, but to disrupt, discredit, or derail it. While security forces in Pakistan were accused by some parties as manipulating the vote, in none of these cases were security forces complicit in the violence.
- Prevention is difficult
Preventing electoral violence by criminal and insurgent perpetrators is a difficult task because their motives reside largely outside of the scope of mediation efforts. Criminals have economic motives and employ violence to continue their operations. For insurgents, their motives lie in extremist ideologies, making them largely unresponsive to mitigation programming.
- Tactics align with perpetrator
Among these three cases, it is clear that criminal groups and Islamic insurgents used different tactics. Criminal groups used targeted assassinations of uncooperative candidates. Whereas, while some candidates were targeted in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the insurgencies chose mass casualty tactics and employed bombings at electoral and campaign events. In all three cases, the contests included district-based offices so the number of candidates, and thus targets, was plentiful.
- Timing of the violence
In all three cases, the violence took place in the pre-election phase and on Election Day. In this way, the violence was employed to influence turnout, and, if successful, post-election violence was not necessary.
Why did we see so much violence?
Why were these elections more lethal than in other countries that experienced electoral violence, including Sierra Leone, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe? The answer may lie in the profile of the perpetrators.
As discussed, the motives of criminals and insurgents are not to “win” elections. For criminal groups, elections are a means to continue their illicit activities. For insurgents, elections are insurgents to demolish. As a result, these perpetrators do not believe in the institutions of election to determine governance. They do not have a stake in the political stakes in these contests as other actors do.
As a result, while political rivals and ruling parties are the most frequent perpetrators of electoral violence, their stake in the elections as a means to achieve governance may serve as a tempering measure, which, while not preventing electoral violence, can reduce its intensity and lethality.
Jeff Fischer is a Senior Electoral Advisor with the Electoral Education and Integrity Practice Area at Creative Associates International