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Electoral assistance can both help and hinder democratization


Electoral assistance contributes to both improving election quality and increase public trust in elections if national authoritities cooperate with agencies providing the assistance. Such positive effects are however unlikely if regime elites deliberately undermine electoral freedom and fairness. In repressive contexts, for instance with limited media freedom, electoral assistance instead risks legitimizing authoritarian regimes, according to new findings from the University of Gothenburg.

Electoral assistance has been a key feature of democracy promotion activities over the last decades. Contrary to mere observation, electoral assistance includes active logistical, technical, and financial support to electoral processes such as procuring ballot boxes, training polling station staff, and educating voters. The aim is to improve the quality of elections as well as public trust in them.

The UN assisted more than one third of all national elections worldwide between 2007 and 2014. Anna Lührmann, assistant professor at the Varieties of Democracy Insitute (V-Dem), has analysed the role of regime elites for the success of such endeavours.

– If the electoral credibility is not a strategic priority of regime elites, electoral assistance remains futile, says Anna Lührmann.

Electoral assistance with different outcomes
Anna Lührmann has investigated three African countries who received substantial electoral assistance, but with dramatically different outcomes – the elections in Sudan 2010, Nigeria 2011 and Libya in 2012

After the fall of Gadhafi, the interim government in Libya made credible elections a top priority and subsequently facilitated free and fair elections. Conversely, the Sudanese president Al-Bashir who had come to power through a military coup in 1989, only reluctantly agreed to hold elections in 2010 and restricted credible electoral competition in order to secure his hold on power.

President Jonathan assumed office only one year before the 2011 election in Nigeria. He prioritized better electoral governance in order to gain popular legitimacy to further the consolidation of his rule.

Thus, regime compliance seems to have enabled the UN to play a positive role for the elections in Libya and Nigeria while the lack of compliance undermined the UN’s contribution to elections in Sudan.

– In Nigeria, it seems plausible that UNEA had an impact on medium-term democratization. However, if regime elites undermine electoral freedom and fairness - as in Sudan (2010) - such positive effects are unlikely. Furthermore, in such contexts, the involvement of the UN may legitimize authoritarian practices. That constitutes a long term threat to the country's democratic development says Anna Lührmann.

Public trust in elections
Using V-Dem and opinion poll data for 47 elections, Anna Lührmann and her colleague Nicholas Kerr show in a related publication that in contexts with better Election Management Bodies (EMBs) citizens trust the election results to a higher degree.

– International support to EMBs may help to boost confidence in elections. At the same time, citizens seem to be more likely to trust elections if the media is under government control. The reason for this may be that citizens receive less critical reports about the electoral events in such contexts, says Anna Lührmann.

For international electoral assistance providers in contexts with limited media freedom this finding has potentially problematic implications.

– Citizens may be prone to believe the governments’ presentation of the elections even though they are severely manipulated. In such cases, international actors may – unintentionally – help to boost the legitimacy of autocratic rulers, says Anna Lührmann.

(Figure 1: V-Dem data) The graph shows the relation between the capacity of election management and electoral freedom and fairness in Sudan, Nigeria and Libya.

Anna Lührmann, assistant professor at the Varieties of Democracy Insitute, University of Gothenburg. Phone number: +46 31 786 1191, email:


Published articles
Lührmann, Anna (2018). United Nations’ Electoral Assistance: More than a Fig Leaf? International Political Science Review. Online First.

Kerr, Nicholas and Anna Lührmann (2017). Public Trust in Manipulated Elections: The Role of Election Administration and Media Freedom. Electoral Studies 50, 50-67.

Link to the V-Dem data base,