Terrorism and Elections: The Use of Non-Violent Strategies

The 9-11 attacks refocused the international security environment to the dangers of terrorism. The use of terrorism has become a primary fixture in conflict environments such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel-Palestine. These conflicts, and others show that the use of terrorism is an ongoing security threat to states in the international system. However, despite the renewed attention given to unravelling the dynamics of terrorism, the question of why some groups use the electoral process to further their goals has been under-explored  The ongoing issues associated with Hamas’ governance of the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanese parliamentary politics, and the IRA’s power sharing agreement in Northern Ireland illustrate how adoption of an electoral strategy can alter conflict dynamics. This discussion provides a summary of a previous study that addresses the question of why some terrorist groups adopt an electoral strategy while others do not. We would expect that if electoral participation provided an advantage to groups challenging the state, that it would be more popular. I identify two factors that can determine whether a terrorist group will adopt an electoral strategy: territorial goals and group competition.

As well as these factors, I also discuss the implications of terrorist groups utilizing non-violent strategies, like electoral adoption, to further their goals. We must not view the adoption of an electoral strategy in the terms of  a simple choice for these groups between violent and non-violent strategies. Terrorist groups can adopt non-violent strategies so that they can continue their violent campaigns. The existence of territorial gains can influence terrorist groups to pursue an electoral strategy. These claims limit the possible acceptable conditions for an end to the conflict as they require territorial concessions by the state. As the terrorist group has an asymmetric power balance, it makes achieving their territorial goals through military means unlikely. This forces them to use other means to achieve their goals.

Terrorist groups can use the electoral system to influence the political process by mobilizing supporters who identify with their territorial ambitions. Elections can provide a terrorist group the opportunity to develop a mobilizing ideology that appeals more moderate supporters who support their overall goals but are reluctant to advocate the use of violence to further them. Attracting supporters can strengthen a terrorist group, making their territorial goals more achievable. Adopting an electoral strategy gives the  terrorist group to frame the conflict within the context of “occupation”. They can then attempt to gain the support of third parties who may press for territorial concessions or another favorable settlement. The presence of group competition also influences whether terrorist groups will adopt an electoral strategy. Group competition increases the number of actors involved, while simultaneously decreasing the potential resource pool for challenging the state. This change in the conflict environment can lead to a reassessment of the strategies the terrorist group uses to accomplish their goals.

Groups can compete for recognition or popular support, this  allows a terrorist group to position itself as the “standard bearer” of the conflict, promoting the idea that its preferences must be accounted for in any viable solution to end the conflict. Adopting an electoral strategy can give these groups  flexibility. Specifically, the electoral arena allows a terrorist group to maintain their core support, while mobilizing support from elsewhere. This flexible approach can attract moderate supporters who identify with the terrorist group’s end goal, but not with violent tactics. Another potential source of support is rooted in other domestic political constituencies, who would prefer an end to the conflict rather than maintain the status quo. This does necessarily mean that those who favor and end to the conflict, become active supporters of the terrorist group. Their support can be gained through the terrorist group advertising how the conflict is a strain on economic and military resources, and how they can put a stop to this through a negotiated settlement.

A terrorist group’s electoral participation does not necessarily mean that they have abandoned a violent campaign, nor that they have reduced their use of violence. Terrorist groups could enter the electoral arena because they want the opportunity to use the electoral process to disseminate their agenda or politically position themselves to harness electoral institutions to increase their strength. These groups may instead see the electoral process as a way to continue violent conflict. This would indicate that a re conceptualization is needed when examining the relationship between the violent and non-violent strategies available to terrorist groups. We need to start viewing the choice of strategies (both violent and non-violent) as a strategic framework that terrorist groups utilize to achieve their political aims. Policy makers faced with security concerns involving terrorism or the need to craft counter-terrorism policies may need to consider terrorist decision making from this strategic framework perspective.

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