By-elections in Kenya: a pass without honours for the IEBC

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In less than six months Kenyans go to the polls in the first election to be held under the new constitution that is devolving governance to forty-seven new counties. Doubts remain over whether the commission tasked with delivering free, fair and credible elections is (at all) prepared. The recent by-elections dispelled some concerns, whilst highlighting others. Natalie Moss, a PhD student at Durham University, joined a group of international observers in Ndhiwa constituency in Nyanza Province on election daBy-elections in Kenyay. Here, she reports her findings.

The by-elections in three parliamentary constituencies and sixteen civic wards on September 17th were an important test for Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). Increasing concern over the electoral body’s capacity and preparedness for Kenya’s historic election scheduled for March 4th 2013, made the by-elections in Ndhiwa, Kajiado North and Kangema a timely opportunity for the IEBC to demonstrate its competence. The seats became vacant after MPs Joshua Orwa Ojode (Ndhiwa), George Saitoti (Kajiado North) and John Michuki (Kangema) died earlier this year. Although the elections were held under old regulations, many of the candidates contested under parties not in existence at the last election. In this way, it was for many of the presidential aspirants a chance to gauge the degree of public support for their parties, particularly for Uhuru Kenyatta’s TNA (The National Alliance Party).

In recent months the IEBC has struggled to restore faith in its abilities after a series of damaging controversies. Its initial failure to act decisively in setting a date for the election was the first in a number of sagas that have undermined the IEBC’s credibility. More recently intrigue has surrounded the procurement of the biometric voter registration (BVR) equipment, which was tentatively resolved this month by an agreement with the Canadian government. Coupled with this, persistent rumours of rivalry and infighting between Commissioners have left the body vulnerable to accusations of poor leadership and partisanship. The critical importance of public confidence in the IEBC cannot be overstated given the many devastating failures made by its predecessor, the ECK in the general election held in December 2007. With just under six month to go until polling day, the looming question for international observers and Kenyans alike is – will the IEBC be ready?

The night before polling, the situation on the ground was not encouraging. Touring Ndhiwa constituency at 7pm, few of the polling stations had received the necessary equipment. Yet at 5.30am, all was in order, and the vast majority of stations opened on time at 6am. Over the next eleven hours, in our visits to fifteen polling stations, we witnessed a very professional and impressive performance from all IEBC officials. Presiding Officers and Clerks executed their duties confidently, following the procedures and aiding the voters clearly and efficiently. Party agents, by and large, worked positively with the IEBC to ensure that all parties endorsed the final results. When reports of voter intimidation, violence and bribery surfaced, the security forces and IEBC officials responded quickly and proportionately. The Kenyan media hailed it as a ‘big win’ for Uhuru and Raila, as TNA candidates won in Kajiado North and Kangema, and ODM secured a landslide victory in Ndhiwa constituency. But it was also, arguably, a big win for the IEBC, which managed to avoid any further dents to its credibility. And yet, although the IEBC’s performance was technically respectable, observers noted glaring gaps in voter education: a critical strand of the commission’s mandate. Whilst adult literacy in Kenya is estimated at 87% (http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/KEN.html), in reality the polling station and ballot paper are for many, confusing and mystifying ventures in democratic participation. The high number of people who needed assistance when voting or were turned away for not having the correct documents was particularly striking given the low turnout (Ndhiwa 50% of registered voters, Kajiado 40% and Kangema 56%).

Voter registration and attendance are one aspect in which the IEBC has to engage the public. More fundamentally though, it was apparent in Ndhiwa at least, that far more must be done to help citizens understand what they are doing when they vote. This is crucial given the sheer complexity of next year’s election. In March, voters will be presented with six different coloured ballot papers, and invited to cast their lot for a president, a governor, a senator, an MP, a councillor and a women’s representative. It is, after Sudan’s 2010 election, when voters in the north had to vote eight times, and in the south twelve times, the most complicated election in Africa. And whilst the IEBC has to focus on technical aspects of this mammoth procedure (given the many opportunities for irregularities to arise under the new system), leaving voter education to the bottom of the to-do list is nonetheless ill-advised.

There has been minimal public education explaining the new political offices and their respective powers and duties. In areas like Ndhiwa where one party dominates, it is fairly easy to predict how voters will behave when faced with six lists of names. In all likelihood, the picture of an orange will be marked with an X to endorse Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Party (ODM). But there are relatively few places like Ndhiwa, and ballot papers are more likely to resemble that in Kajiado North, which had ten candidates. Kenyans are familiar with the symbol of an orange and a cockerel (for independence party KANU), but September 17th would have been the first time voters were presented with pictures of ‘greeting hands’, ‘the rising sun’ or an ‘elderly walking tick’ (United Democratic Forum, Restore and Build Kenya and Conservative Party).

The multiplication of parties and elected offices makes this an unpredictable time for politicians whose attempts to understand how best to position themselves, are for the time being, explorations in uncharted territory. For voters, confusion is duly amplified. In the long term this could be positive for democracy in Kenya as parties may be forced to assume ways to differentiate themselves that are founded more on ideology than personality. In the short term however, it’s likely that voters, in the absence of civic education, will vote along the party lines of their chosen president. Given the drastic experiment with devolution that Kenya is embarking upon, electing those entrusted with governing the forty-seven counties should not necessarily be done purely on the basis of sharing an orange or a dove with Raila or Uhuru.

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