IFES: Preparing for Transitional Elections – Challenges and Opportunities for Building Democratic Resilience During Conflict and Other Crises

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November 07, 2023

Even during conflicts, elections are sometimes pitched as proof that democracy is still alive, as exemplified by recent suggestions from a few prominent individuals that elections should be held in war-torn Ukraine. But the challenges of holding elections in these scenarios are as big as the expectations they carry.  

For conflict and post-conflict elections to be a milestone for legitimacy, sustainable peace, and democratization – rather than more fuel for unrest – they must take place under appropriate conditions that may be difficult to meet in a compressed timeline. As IFES’s Peter Erben and Gio Kobakhidze have argued in the context of Ukraine, these conditions include reasonable levels of security and basic democratic standards, where people are able to “focus on a free and vibrant political contest and not on staying alive while under daily attack.” At the same time, waiting too long to hold elections can also bring its own set of problems, including political uncertainty and declining perceptions of government legitimacy.  

How can the international community support countries to hold meaningful transitional elections without rushing them to do so when conditions are not right?

Where immediate elections might not be possible or recommended, the international community, in partnership with democracy assistance providers, can focus instead on helping democratic institutions reform and recover from the losses they may have suffered during crises and build their resilience to withstand similar shocks in the future.1 Stronger institutions can then provide the accountability mechanisms needed to ensure not only the success of transitional elections but also of the country’s future democratic processes. 

In 2021, IFES published a report compiling lessons learned from democracy assistance programs in post-conflict and other transitional contexts. Below, we revisit some of these main findings and propose interventions that can help institutions and stakeholders recover from conflict-driven adversity and prepare for elections that support a peaceful transition. 

Areas, of Concern, Key Challenges for Elections, and Potential Interventions


Physical Infrastructure

Financial Resources

Human Capital

Unresolved social and political divisions and grievances

Incumbent advantages

While conflicts and crises might hinder the realization of safe and meaningful elections, they also do not need to represent a hiatus for democracy. Borrowing from Portuguese writer José Saramago, “Let us not rush, but let us not waste time.” As the interventions described above show, there are several ways the international community can help (re)build the resilience of democratic institutions in preparation for the polls.  

Meet the experts:

Dr. Fernanda Buril

Deputy Director, Center for Applied Research and Learning



Harald Hartvig Jepsen, International Senior Adviser, Ukraine




Peter Erben

Principal Advisor, IFES, and Senior Country Director, Ukraine




IFES advances democracy for a better future. We collaborate with civil society, public institutions, and the private sector to build resilient democracies that deliver for everyone. As a global leader in the promotion and protection of democracy, our technical assistance and applied research develop trusted electoral bodies capable of conducting credible elections; effective and accountable governing stakeholders; civic and political processes in which all people can safely and equally participate; and innovative ways in which technology and data can positively serve elections and democracy. Since 1987, IFES has worked in more than 145 countries, from developing to mature democracies. IFES is a global, nonpartisan organization based in Arlington, Virginia, USA, and registered as a nonprofit organization [501(c)(3)] under the United States tax code.


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