An exhibit honors Nelson Mandela in June 2013 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Michelly Rall/Getty Images)

Which nations’ elections will involve violence? According to our research, in Africa the answer depends — at least in part — on four factors: how strongly democracy has taken root, what kind of electoral system is in place, whether large ethnic groups are kept out of power and how much the nation is plagued by economic inequality.

Consider that Nigeria, Kenya and the Ivory Coast all have histories of election violence, including voters threatened and intimidated, opposition candidates arrested, polling stations attacked, and protesters and security forces clashing.

But other African countries such as Benin, Malawi and Namibia have generally gone to the polls peacefully.

Election violence matters because it undermines free and fair elections. There’s direct physical and psychological harm. But just as important, violent intimidation may disenfranchise voters and depress electoral turnout, restrict the choice of candidates at the ballot and compromise the electoral result. Electoral violence can not only encourage authoritarianism and other non-democratic approaches, but it also can erode citizens’ confidence in the democratic process.

Are the elections majority rule or proportional rule? It matters.

Our recent article in British Journal of Political Science examines how different electoral systems are associated with the risk of election-related violence.

Some countries elect leaders through a “First Past the Post” system, a type of majoritarian electoral system in which voters choose among individual politicians. The United States, for instance, has majoritarian elections: The candidate who gets the most votes in that electoral district wins.

In other countries, the legislature is elected through proportional representation. Voters typically choose among lists of candidates presented by parties. The parties gain seats in parliament based on the proportion of votes they bring in.

Using quantitative analysis, we found that across Africa, countries with majority-wins systems are more likely to be violent than countries with proportional systems.

Patronage raises the stakes 

That’s because majoritarian systems induce winner-takes-all dynamics, especially in countries where democratic institutions haven’t fully taken hold. Formal electoral institutions help shape the incentive structure that guides political behavior and the electoral dynamics. In countries where democratic institutions are consolidated, the threat of a decisive electoral defeat is usually not sufficient to motivate the use of violence. When a society accepts the mechanisms of democracy, politicians and others abide by an election’s results, no matter how unhappy it makes them. In such situations, democracy becomes self-enforcing.

But across Africa, formal electoral rules interact with powerful, informal institutions that increase each election’s stakes. In many countries, politics is dominated by patron-client relationships in which political candidates reward support with such benefits as access to land, education, jobs or even cash. Patronage networks mean that political power brings economic benefits for the individual politician, his or her family, and, often, their ethnic kin.

That raises the stakes of each election in two critical ways. First, they increase the private payoffs that come from controlling political positions. In Africa, that means politicians often use their political power to claim state resources by, for example, manipulating government contracts, awarding material privileges such as property, or simply looting the public treasury. As a result, some politicians seek public offices for the privileges they’ll get, and voters support politicians from their own ethnic group to get the spoils as well.

Second, because they control state patronage resources, politicians who already have political power gain a clear electoral advantage.

Across both proportional and majoritarian systems, office seekers value political positions both to set policy and to control money and privileges. But there’s a difference. In proportional systems, more than one party may get into power. In majoritarian electoral institutions, only one candidate from each electoral district gains a legislative seat. The stakes are high.

That winner-takes-all dynamic reinforces the idea that elections are zero-sum. Either you win control of the state and its resources or you lose it all. Possible losers fear that they won’t be able to win and motivate loyal voters by giving out the state’s largesse – and so they fear any temporary political loss will lead to permanent political exclusion. And so both incumbents and challengers may turn to violence in order to win.

So do ethnic divisiveness and sharp economic inequality

But there’s even more to it than that. Winner-takes-all systems are more likely to induce violence if, first, large, politically mobilized ethnic groups are kept out of formal political power. The size of the group is important because it shapes the expectations among voters and politicians of getting access to power. Politicians who draw their support from larger excluded groups are also more likely to be in marginal positions when the outcome of the elections could go either way. These opposition politicians are, therefore, also more likely to constitute an electoral threat to those in government, which increases the incentives to use violent tactics such as detentions, harassment or voter intimidation.

Second, election stakes are higher when economic inequality is more extreme. Sometimes winning political power means a group gets economic resources such as jobs, land, government contracts and cash. Winning becomes more urgent in a country where losing can mean poverty for officeholders and their followers.

Election violence is most likely in winner-take-all systems where land is controlled by a small segment of society.

Peacemakers might want to take note

More and more research helps us understand why some countries are more plagued by election violence than others. Other factors that increase the risk of electoral violence include lack of effective checks on executive power, the perception that margin of victory is small, the belief that particular elections are illegitimate and the presence of electoral observers.

Peacemakers and others who are helping to craft political systems might wish to take note. If we want nations to accept their election results without violence, policies should reduce the stakes of political competition, diffuse the spoils of political power and make it easier for various parties and factions to have a voice within the government.

Hanne Fjelde is associate professor in the department of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Kristine Höglund is professor in the department of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University in Sweden.

The article from which this post is drawn has been ungated for the next six months as part of our continuing collaboration with the British Journal of Political Science.