In tense elections, religious leaders can make things better—or worse

When democracy is functioning well, vigorously but fairly conducted elections provide a powerful way of defusing a country's internal arguments. However loudly they denounce one another, rival politicians at a certain level work together to uphold a political system on whose rules they all agree. But in fragile democracies, and places where inter-communal rifts run deep, elections can have the opposite effect, stoking internal tensions to the point where violence explodes. Religious leaders often have a huge influence, for better or worse, as to which outcome prevails.

That last point emerges clearly in a report synthesising several detailed academic studies, delivered by GSDRC, a consultancy, to the British government. It singled out Kenya as a country where religious leaders had at various times stoked tensions or calmed things down. Reviewing the wave of post-electoral violence that swept the country in 2007-08 (pictured), Kenya's Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission came to the lamentable conclusion that "church leaders and elders participated in the incitement of ethnic-based violence", repeating a pattern first seen in 1992. But in the lead-up to elections in 2013, churches had helped to head off bloodshed by organizing rallies for peace. It was partly under the influence of churches, the Catholic one in particular, that old rivals Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto formed a unity government.

In Nigeria, divided between a Christian south and Muslim north, the role of faith was equally mixed. On the negative side, "Christian and Muslim religious leaders have tried to gain followers and influence by claiming to be effective at checking the social and political influence of the rival religion [and] such competition has spilled over into electoral politics." The report added that "religious leaders [in Nigeria] have also been accused of undermining free and fair elections not only by failing to condemn vote-rigging, but allowing politicians who won fraudulent elections to engage in 'thanksgiving' in churches and mosques."

On the other hand, Nigeria's faith leaders also played a constructive role, at times, helping for example to keep last year's election peaceful. In Borno state, a prominent Christian cleric had urged people to vote for competent candidates rather than on religious lines. Some faith leaders simply urged people to register and vote peacefully, without offering any political advice. Nigeria's large Anglican church was said to have defused tension by organizing televised debates and encouraging rational discussion.

Tanzania offered another positive example. The Catholic church fostered civil education by urging voters in a 2010 election to make an informed choice. It did this in defiance of the ruling party but refused to be drawn into a fight. The report also mentioned Guyana, Indonesia and Sri Lanka as countries where religious leaders had tried, with varying degrees of success, to keep electoral contests peaceful.

But perhaps the best recent example of religious leaders helping to maintain social peace came too late for the report: in the turbulent run-up to this week's local elections in South Africa, church leaders (including Anglicans, Catholics and pan-Christian bodies) have played an outstanding role in calling for calm and denouncing politicians who in their view were inciting tension for their own ends. Drawing on the moral stature which they acquired during the struggle against apartheid, that country's champions of faith have given a voice to public discontent over corruption and graft while discouraging people from turning to violence to vent their ire.

In secular countries of the north (especially western Europe), it can be hard to understand quite how pivotal the role of faith leaders can be in tilting a situation towards or away from violence. A common theme of religious preaching is that people will answer to a higher power for the consequences, direct and indirect, of their words and deeds. That surely applies to religious leaders themselves as much as to their flock.