Protecting Kenya’s Democratic Gains

Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga announces he will challenge the results of the recent presidential election. Nairobi, August 16, 2017 (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)

Kenya’s political opposition, the National Super Alliance, or NASA, announced on August 16 that it would petition the August 8 presidential election results declared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The results put Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s fourth and incumbent president, ahead of Raila Odinga, NASA’s presidential flagbearer, by 1,441,066 votes.

The decision to challenge has been lauded by the British and United States ambassadors to Kenya, the European Union’s electoral observation mission, and businessmen in Kenya’s Kisumu city, an opposition stronghold. Earlier, the opposition had indicated it would not go to court, and reports had circulated that protests in select Kenyan slums were being violently suppressed by the police, leading to several deaths.

It is important to note that Kenyan presidential results have regularly been petitioned, or rejected, since the return of multi-party elections in 1992. The only exception is the 2002 general elections, when Kenyatta conceded defeat to Mwai Kibaki. This suggests a long-running and serious lack of trust in the political process, including in the credibility of the electoral management system.

Indeed, when post-election violence gripped Kenya after the 2007 presidential results were rejected, a number of institutional reforms—the promulgation of a new constitution in 2010; devolution of power; and reform of the judiciary, police, and electoral commission—followed. Together, these reforms were meant to instill voter confidence in the electoral process, and reduce the high-stakes political game that had accompanied the presidential contest in previous elections. The most recent post-electoral climate suggests this process may not have gone far enough.

On election day, voting proceeded peacefully and calmly, as most Kenyans contended with hot and sunny conditions in long queues to cast their ballots. The overall turnout was an impressive 78.91%, which represented 15,073,662 registered voters. However, the following week of waiting for results to stream into the online portal of the IEBC was filled with much drama, including accusations and counter-accusations and contentious press conferences both in support of, and against, the legitimacy of the polls.

Many questions, including allegations of hacking, were raised, but the only consistent (and probably valid) narrative in NASA’s rejection of the results is that the IEBC declared the results without the official, and corresponding 34A forms. These are filled by presiding officers after the counting of votes from polling stations across the country. By the time of writing, thousands are still missing. In their petition against the result, NASA stated that it will demand access to IEBC’s servers so as to reconcile the 34A forms with the 34B forms. The latter were filled at the 290 constituency tallying centers and were ultimately used to declare the presidential results, but may have been based on incorrect or incomplete 34A information.

The delay in submitting the 34A forms to the electoral commission’s online portal may have been the result of poor connection in far flung areas, or sheer incompetence by electoral officials. Yet there are also suggestions of more serious foul play, particularly in light of the murder of the IEBC information and communications technology manager a few days prior to the elections.

The ongoing electoral challenges come as a majority of Kenyan voters maintain a distinct belief in the vote as the ultimate mechanism of constituting government. This in keeping with countries across Africa: Since the 2000s, elections and term limits have come to replace death and coups d’état as the most common ways in which African presidents and prime ministers have left office. More and more countries are holding elections, entrenching democratic principles of governance in the process. Political participation is also reliably high across the continent, with average turnout rates hovering around 65% and a belief in the power of the ballot underscored by responses to the Afrobarometer survey of national public attitudes.

In Kenya, voter turnout in the six elections since 1992 averages even higher than the current African figure, at 70%. The political environment during that time has improved after every election, becoming relatively more open, free, and competitive. However, the existence of a relatively open political environment does not necessarily increase the levels of trust in the electoral process itself, or guarantee peace around polling.

The opposition has continued to fight for reforms that it believes will improve the situation. It has fought without success to have the manual voter identification and vote transmission system expunged from the laws, arguing that the electronic Kenya Electoral Integrated Management System is the only one that should be used. The ongoing challenges revealed by this year’s election will continue to drive demand for the greater use of technology in voter identification and transmission of results.

Given recent statistics, is seems that voters in Kenya, and Africa more broadly, will continue to throng to polling stations, as democracy entrenches itself as the “only game in town.” Yet challenges such as missing forms, and, moreover, the murder of electoral officials, can seriously undermine the validity of elections among a significant section of the country’s population. This is despite the high voter turnout and remarkable levels of calm on this year’s polling day. The election has shown that Kenya needs to continue moving toward a secure and credible electoral system—and attract the support of international partners along the way—to further the gains of democratic consolidation.

Ngala Chome is a doctoral student at the History Department of Durham University, United Kingdom.