How (not) to hold elections in South Sudan

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Along with Luka Biong and Edmund Yakani, DiA’s Nic Cheeseman has authored a new report on How (not) to hold elections in South Sudan for the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. You can download the report free, here.

In August 2022, the parties to the Revitalized Agreement for the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) extended the transitional period provided for in the 2018 peace agreement by another two years. This pushes the designated date for the country’s first local and national elections since independence in 2011 to December 2024.

This is not the first time that elections have been postponed in South Sudan, and it may not be the last.

There are however, strong pressures from multiple sources for the elections to be held this time round. South Sudanese interviewed in a representative national survey expressed their strong interest to “hold [the elections] sooner rather than later”. More than half of the respondents (58%) are of the opinion that elections should be held “next year.” About a quarter of the respondents (24%) believe that the elections should be held “within the next 3-5 years.” Only 3% of the respondents rejected outright the idea of elections by answering “never”. Even in areas where the majority of the citizens worry that elections could bring division and violence, most of them want elections to take place.

The parties to the Revitalised Agreement have also expressed their commitment to hold the elections on time. This is in line with the new “Agreement on the Roadmap to a Peaceful and Democratic End of the Transitional Period of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan” signed on 2 August 2022. There is considerable public suspicion on how genuine this support for elections from the parties to the conflict is, given the risks that political competition and the resulting political uncertainty could pose for their continued tenure on power. The international community, on the other hand, remains highly supportive of the idea of elections. This is because, as is so often the case, elections are seen in some quarters as the endpoint of conflict, which paves the way to transition to peace. They also see elections as a signal to trigger and legitimise, hopefully, the disengagement of the international community.

Despite international and domestic support, the prospects for elections in South Sudan are as unclear as ever. While open conflict and violence among the main signatories to the peace agreement might have reduced, inter-communal violence persists and trust between the rival leaders, forces and groups is in short supply. The Revitalised Agreement stipulates that before the transitional arrangement comes to an end a new constitution should be in place. The talks on a constitutional arrangement may be ongoing but its completion seems a long way off. The Agreement also stipulates that a census be held before the end of the transition period, but no-one is currently talking of it loudly.

While the Political Parties Act (Amendment Bill) 2022 has been approved, neither the Political Parties Council nor the National Electoral Commission (NEC) has been reconstituted. The National Elections Bill was approved by the Council of Ministers on 14 April 2023. Parliament now has to pass the bill into law. This and the other relevant legislations will need to be reviewed and potentially amended once a new constitution is finalised, to make sure that they are consistent with the new text.

While the imperative of completing these steps can be used to explain the need for an electoral delay, there also appears to be a lack of political will among the parties to enable a timely and complete conclusion of the transitional period. Indeed, many worry that the peace agreement will be extended once again, as leaders seek to preserve existing privileged while insulating themselves from the risk of accountability for past actions. Against the backdrop of these concerns, there is a genuine risk that the pursuit of a democratic transition will become an elusive quest. According to the report of the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (RJMEC) on the status of the implementation of the Revitalised Agreement for the period 1 January to 31 March 2023, progress under the thematic area of national elections ‘has been slow’. As a result, ‘all the election-related tasks including the establishment and functioning of institutions that drive the elections process, are behind schedule’.

The lack of momentum on key political reforms means that there are serious questions on whether it will be feasible to hold credible elections in less than two years’ time. This is particularly so in light of the limited progress made towards establishing the kind of legal and infrastructural frameworks commonly understood to represent a solid foundation for multiparty politics. This raises a number of serious questions and trade-offs:

  1. The sequencing of reforms. Do elections need to be held under a new constitution or can it be held under the current interim constitution? If held prior to enactment of a permanent constitution, what would be the minimum set of issues that the political leaders need to agree on before polls could be held?
  2. Voter registration and delimitation. What are the challenges of voter registration and delimitation in the absence of a census? Can other data sets such as population estimates, voter registration data or previous constituencies be used instead? And if so, what challenges does this present to the electoral commission?
  3. The choice of electoral and political system. How can the electoral and political systems be designed to give a broad range of elites and citizens a stake in the system – including IDPs and minorities? And how can it be used to reduce the risk of party schisms on one hand, and without creating a single party dominance, on the other hand?
  4. The primacy of parties. Elections are only as good as the parties that contest them. So, what kind of parties does South Sudan want and need? And are inclusive parties best generated through quotas or some other electoral design systems?
  5. Electoral system mandate. Given the electoral commission is yet to be reconstituted, what are the risks of giving it a broad mandate, including, for example, voter registration and monitoring hate speech, as opposed to a narrow focus on the delivery of the elections themselves?
  6. Security and conflict prevention. Should elections only be organised when the country achieves greater security, or can it be held come what may, because elections can be assumed to create a more legitimate government and hence promote peace?
  7. Electoral sustainability. Is it better to hold elections in December 2024 – the proposed time, even though this would likely require high levels of international support, potentially making democratic gains less sustainable? Or would it be better to hold them with a longer run-in to ensure that the South Sudanese themselves have ownership of key elements?

The answers to these questions can only be provided by the South Sudanese and their political leaders. This report reviews these questions by drawing on a range of recent experiences from across sub-Saharan Africa as well as discussions with South Sudanese academics, politicians, and civil society representatives. Rather than aim to resolve these debates, the report wants to highlight potential costs and benefits of the main options available to South Sudanese actors.

Theoretically, elections are possible in the absence of a permanent constitution, but this would most likely require the modification of the Revitalised Agreement. Proceeding without an established permanent constitutional framework would also render the process more fragile given the absence of established dispute resolution mechanisms such as a well rooted Supreme Court. The political elite would need to come to an agreement on some form of charter on basic rules that make an election possible in such an environment, while avoiding the risk of turning the electoral process into a politically negotiated rather than a rules-based one. We suggest that it should be possible to register voters without a census. However, the legal pitfalls of moving ahead without a full census are many. It may even make it harder to resolve some critical questions, such as how to draw constituency boundaries.

A mixed electoral and political system that combines first-past-the-post constituencies with proportional representation constituencies aimed at protecting minorities and historically marginalized groups is likely to gain a broad-based elite support. The experience from Kenya and Nigeria suggests that future political stability does not just depend on whether electoral seats are distributed in an inclusive way, but also on how resources and power are distributed.

Long-term security and stability are likely to require avoiding the consolidation of “ethnic” parties that are seen to represent only one or two communities. We can learn important lessons about how to do this from countries such as Burundi and Nigeria. Yet, the main ways to achieve this – ethnic party bans, ethnic quotas and through tweaking the electoral rules –come with costs as well as benefits and would be challenging for the existing political parties in South Sudan to implement. The best way of avoiding exclusionary parties while fostering internal party democracy therefore needs to be thought through very carefully. The provisions included in the Political Parties Act (Amendment Bill) 2022 seem likely to encourage parties to adopt a national outlook. This, however, will only be effective if the Political Parties Council and the other relevant institutions have the capacity and, critically, the power to monitor and enforce them.

It is also important not to lose sight of the importance of inter-party relations when thinking of the kinds of parties that are most desirable. Regular and structured engagement, for example, through party liaison committees chaired and attended by the electoral commission, has often been found to promote mutual understanding and trust ahead of elections in countries like Ghana. Again, the Political Parties Council can play this role, but only if it is resourced and empowered to do so.

Given its limited capacity at present, we warn against overloading the electoral commission with a wide range of responsibilities. Considering the magnitude of logistical, procurement and staffing challenges the electoral commission is likely to face, it makes sense to enlist civil society actors, especially the church, to support the delivery of civic and voter education. The recent experience of Kenya suggests that there may be benefits from creating a semi-independent state entity, such as the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), to collaborate with civil society groups such as the churches when it comes to fostering peace. South Sudan could do this by building on the blueprint for a Commission for Truth, Healing and Reconciliation that was provided for in the 2018 Peace Agreement and expanding and updating its mandate.

Elections can and often have been held against backdrops of violence. Elections in Liberia and Sierra Leone have played important roles in putting these countries back on a pathway to peace. Yet, it is also true that elections can exacerbate inter-communal tensions. Thus, when holding elections in post-conflict contexts it is particularly important to build inclusive political systems so that no group feels completely excluded from access to the state, and to practice conflict prevention as well as conflict resolution. 

Finally, heavy international involvement in elections can help to overcome the kind of major logistical challenges that South Sudan is likely to face if it is to hold elections in December 2024. However, evidence from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others, show that heavy international involvement increases the risk that any democratic gains secured through post-conflict elections will not be domestically sustainable. Rather, it is likely to leave the country in a similar situation to the one it is in now the next time elections roll around. Taking a little more time to ensure local ownership may be a trade-off worth making. However, given the strong public support for elections ‘sooner rather than later,’ any delay will need to be justified with reference to clear gains in terms of quality and sustainability. The adoption of explicit actions, timelines, and monitoring mechanisms would be needed to build trust and avoid further slippage.

In conclusion, those empowered to make decisions about the forthcoming elections do not face easy choices. Pressing ahead with elections in the absence of a permanent constitution, an inclusive political and electoral framework, and domestic ownership, could be a recipe for the polls to be viewed as a failure in future. Similarly, postponing elections once again could fatally undermine the credibility of the peace deal, as well as the patience of the South Sudanese citizens.

Download the full report here.

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham. He is also the author or editor of more than ten books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018), Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018), and The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa (2021). He is the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Politics. He founded and co-edits www.

Luka Biong Deng Kuol is an adjunct professor at the Institute of Peace, Development, and Security Studies, University of Juba, South Sudan. He is also affiliated with Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University, USA, and Rift Valley Institute. He sits on the editorial board of Disasters Journal. His publications include “The Struggle for South Sudan: Challenges of Security and State Formation”.

Edmund Yakani is the executive director of Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO). He has extensive experience in training, research and advocacy on security sector reform, governance, human rights, rule of law and gender. As one of South Sudan’s most prominent political activists, he has championed several campaigns to end conflict and set the country on a path to peace.



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