What Causes Some Elections to Go Violent?

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Many were nervous about the recent Kenyan election because more than 1,000 people died in the aftermath of the last one. Why does democratic voting sometimes spiral into rioting?

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Kenyan security personnel keep watch over ballot boxes arriving at a tallying center on the outskirts of Nairobi on March 5, 2013. (Reuters)

In the winter of 2007, machete-wielding mobs marauded around the Kenya, hacking rival tribes to death and burning women and children alive. In all, more than 1,300 people died and 600,000 people were displaced in the violence that followed the country's previous election.

The Democracy ReportThis time, Kenyans stocked up on staples like flour, rice, bread ahead of Monday's vote in case riots broke out again. But although watchers both inside and outside of Kenya steeled themselves for violence, this year's election was comparatively peaceful. While it's still possible that the country's political rivalries could turn deadly if there are reports of voting irregularities or a contentious run-off, only a few pockets of violence broke out on voting day, and it wasn't clear that it was election-related.

Kenya made some changes to its electoral process in 2010, partly in response to the 2007 bloodshed, which might have helped things run more smoothly this year. But the sheer outrageousness of the violence in 2007 also raises the question: Why are some elections violent, while most proceed without incident?

Developing countries do tend to see more election-time violence, according to one 2005 study, but they also tend to have the kinds of poor economic conditions and weak governmental institutions that are likelier to result in post-voting rampages.

Previously, Kenya's political system didn't grant much power to anyone but the president -- the same guy who had just been accused of stealing the election.

The last election's carnage was so extreme that it launched a flurry of studies and reports centered on how to prevent it the next time around. Here are a few of the circumstances that some experts say can spark election violence -- in Kenya and elsewhere:

1. Unclear election results that aren't credible

The unrest in Kenya began in December 2007, when Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner and his main opponent, Raila Odinga, claimed there had been countless instances of vote-rigging. It had been the closest election in Kenya's history.

"One of the issues is that people went to bed the last time thinking one side had won and they woke up the next day and the other side had won," said Bill Sweeney, the president of IFES, which provides technical assistance for elections. "There was very little transparency in the process, which gave rise to the tensions in the society. There remain lots of conspiracy theories as to what happened."

That might sound like a familiar problem -- the 2000 U.S. election was also famously extremely close, strongly disputed and involved some voting irregularities (hanging chads, anyone?) But unlike the U.S., Kenya lacked a strong judiciary to resolve the issue.

The problem was, Kenya's political system previously just didn't grant much power to anyone but the president, the same guy who had just been accused of stealing the election.

"All institutional organs outside the presidency were seen as compromised and unable to resolve things," said Boston University African Studies Center researcher Susanne Mueller, who has studied Kenya's politics. "Civil servants and various arms of government understood how their bread was buttered and tended to defer to the president."

This time Kenyan officials had installed a credible chief justice, Willy Mutunga, to oversee the voting -- although he's also reportedly received death threats for attempting to ensure peaceful, fair elections.

2. A system where the winner "takes all"

Kenyan political parties operate around personalities, rather than ideologies. The "big man" -- the candidate -- is a vehicle for his own party or ethnic group, according to Mueller. The country also has what's called "zero-sum ethnic politics," which means supporters of losing parties don't see opponent victories as a win for the other side -- they see it as a loss for themselves and their ethnic group.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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