The Politics of Change: The Evolution of UN Electoral Services, 1989-2006

By Schroeder, Michael | Global Governance, April-June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Change: The Evolution of UN Electoral Services, 1989-2006


Schroeder, Michael, Global Governance


The United Nations and many members were unenthusiastic when Nicaragua, a sovereign state, invited the UN to observe its elections in 1989. However, the UN accepted the invitation, and UN electoral services have since reached over 100 members. This article investigates UN involvement in elections from 1989 to 2006 and identifies important changes over that time in the kinds of electoral services that the UN provided. These changes cannot be explained solely by shifts in member interests, international norms, the distribution of power, or the market for electoral services. Instead, the UN made modest reforms to manage the conflicting pressures that these external shifts produced without stretching scarce resources or weakening its perceived legitimacy. However, each modest reform--an exception, symbolic institutional change, or new leadership vision--triggered additional changes by reconstituting member or bureaucratic preferences. This article specifically highlights three change processes that these reforms triggered: normalizing deviance, expanding demand, and offering political cover. These findings have important implications for scholarship on UN reform, the provision of electoral services, and the role of the UN's leadership. KEYWORDS: United Nations, UN Secretary-General, electoral assistance, international organizations, democracy promotion, bureaucratic politics, political leadership, postconflict elections, UN peace operations, organizational theory, sociological institutionalism.

THE UN SECRETARY-GENERAL (UNSG) AND MANY MEMBERS WERE UNENTHUSIASTIC when Nicaragua, a sovereign state, invited the UN to observe its elections in 1989. However, the UN did accept the invitation and UN electoral services have since reached over 100 countries. In fact, UN involvement in elections has received widespread support even though alternative service providers are available, the UN has undemocratic members, and democracy is not an explicit UN Charter value. The General Assembly has endorsed the UN's involvement thirteen times and the Security Council regularly asks the UN to assist with postconflict elections. In 2005, US president George W. Bush even praised the work of UN electoral officials in his State of the Union address. (1)

In this article, I investigate UN involvement in elections from 1989 to 2006 and find important changes over that time period in the kinds of electoral services the UN provided. Pressure to advance peace in Central America led the UN to deviate from past practice and authorize UN election observers for Nicaragua--the first electoral observation mission in a series that included Haiti, Angola, Mozambique, Eritrea, El Salvador, and South Africa. In 1992, the UN accommodated requests from democratizing states by establishing a small electoral unit in the Secretariat and expanding the menu of service offerings by sending a symbolic UN presence to states requesting UN election observers. Finally, electoral agencies tightened the criteria for receiving assistance, expanded technical electoral assistance, and altered the UN's approach to postconflict elections after UNSG Kofi Annan and UN Development Programme (UNDP) administrator Mark Malloch Brown championed good governance--a fashionable concept in development circles--in the late 1990s.

These changes cannot be explained solely by the conventional wisdom that international organizations change to reflect external shifts involving member interests, international norms, the distribution of power, or the market for a service. Those factors set the parameters for change, but inadequately explain the UN's entry into the electoral services market and subsequent alterations in service offerings.

A better explanation shows how the UN made modest reforms to manage the conflicting pressures that each external shift produced without stretching scarce resources or weakening its perceived legitimacy. However, each modest reform--exceptions, symbolic institutional changes, or a new leadership vision--triggered additional changes by reconstituting member or bureaucratic preferences. …

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