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Contentious Elections

Contentious Elections: From Ballots to Barricades

Eds. Pippa Norris, Richard W. Frank,  and Ferran Martinez i Coma

Forthcoming New York: Routledge (2015)

During the post-Cold War era, concern has risen about the proliferation of contentious elections and the number of polls held in a pervasive climate of fraud, mistrust, and intolerance which have ignited massive protests and violence. Far from generating beneficial consequences, disputed contests raise red flags by potentially undermining democratic transitions in countries emerging from dictatorship, furthering instability and social tensions in fragile states, increasing uncertainty and risks for investors, and jeopardizing growth and development in low-income economies.

Borrowing loosely from the broad and rich literature on contentious politics, the concept of ‘contentious elections’ is defined in this book as contests involving major challenges, with different degrees of severity, to the legitimacy of electoral actors, procedures, or outcomes. Evidence of contentious elections is explicit in this conceptualization where there are deep disputes challenging either the authority of electoral actors (such as the impartiality, authority, and independence of Electoral Management Bodies); the fairness of electoral procedures throughout the electoral cycle (including the rules of the game used to draw boundaries, register voters, candidates and parties, allocate elected offices, regulate campaigns, cast ballots, and translate votes into seats), and/or the legitimacy of outcomes and thus those winning office (including representatives and political parties).

What triggers contentious elections? The theory unfolded in this volume suggests that problems of electoral malpractice erode confidence in electoral authorities, spur peaceful protests demonstrating against the outcome, and, in the most severe cases, lead to outbreaks of conflict and violence. Understanding this process is of vital concern for domestic reformers and the international community, as well as attracting a growing new research agenda. To date, however, most work has focused upon specific cases of electoral violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, rather than comparing the broader process of contentious elections occurring in many world regions, contexts, and types of states. Drawing together scholars of international relations, comparative politics, and electoral behavior, this volume seeks to address these issues. The book draws upon a wide range of diverse sources of evidence at macro and micro levels, focusing in particular on the behavior of citizens in the context of contentious elections occurring in ‘electoral authoritarian’ or ‘hybrid’ regimes, which we demonstrate face the highest risks from this phenomenon.

The opening chapter sets out the key themes and summarizes the overall theoretical argument and plan of the book. Subsequent chapters dive deeper into the evidence by disentangling several underlying mechanisms for disputed contests in specific cases of ‘hybrid regimes’ or ‘electoral autocracies’ which are at high risk -- including Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Case-studies help to determine the detailed micro-foundations connecting the dots for why some contests succeed in achieving a broad consensus about the process and outcome, promoting stability and consensus, while others fail and end in bitter disputes and even deadly conflict. The final section of the book examines broader challenges arising in many parts of the world from electoral violence, ethnic voting, and demands for secession.


List of tables and figures 

List of contributors

Preface and acknowledgments


1. Pippa Norris, Richard W. Frank, and Ferran Martinez i Coma Contentious elections: from votes to violence

Part I: Corroding public trust and triggering protests

2. Olena Nikolayenko Do contentious elections depress turnout?

3. Alesia Sedziaka and Richard Rose Do contentious elections catalyze mass protests?

4. Masaaki Higashijima Do contentious elections overthrow leaders?

Part II: Catalyzing and preventing electoral violence

5. Patrick Kuhn Do contentious elections trigger violence?

6. Katherine Collin Do referendums resolve or perpetuate contention? 

Part III: Conclusions

7. Pippa Norris, Richard W. Frank, and Ferran Martinez i Coma The risks of contentious elections

Select bibliography



"With more than half of the world’s countries claiming to be democratic, measuring the quality of democracy has never been more important. In this timely book, Norris, Frank and Martínez i Coma examine elections in which the result has been contested. Their findings are significant, and relevant to anyone who considers electoral integrity to be a core democratic value." Ian McAllister, Australian National University, Australia.

"Contentious Elections is an important contribution to the burgeoning literature on election integrity, and a must-read for anyone interested in the dynamics of elections, protest and conflict. Bringing together a wide variety of empirical evidence from around the globe, Contentious Elections provides novel insights into the causal links connecting election integrity to legitimacy, electoral protests, and ultimately, election violence. The book argues that elections are neither universal peace-creators nor always spark war, but rather demonstrates that whether elections consolidate peace or trigger conflict depends on political, institutional and socio-economic conditions in which elections take place, providing important insights useful for researchers and policy-makers alike."Carolien van Ham, University of New South Wales, UK.

"Elections can trigger challenges and protests, sometimes becoming violent, when outcomes are contested. In this major new work, the implications of shortcomings in electoral integrity that provoke such challenges are examined in a broadly comparative framework by Norris and her colleagues. As the contributors to this volume demonstrate, contentious elections carry risks that need to be better understood by both scholars and practitioners. First rate, policy relevant, research on a fundamentally important topic." Lawrence LeDuc, University of Toronto, Canada.