Posters from previous election in 2013. Photo: matherindungu, creative commons.

Flawless elections prevent violence

Ten years ago, in the aftermath of the presidential election in Kenya immense violence took more than 1,000 lives. The 2013 elections were not violent, but accusations of vote-rigging meant the results were contested. This year’s elections, scheduled to take place on 8 August, also have worrying signs written all over them, according to NAI researcher Anders Sjögren.

"The best way to avoid any kind of violence is to hold fair and transparent elections. Unfortunately, preparations for the election process point in the opposite direction”, Sjögren says.

The contest for the presidency is evenly matched between the two main contenders, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party and National Super Alliance leader Raila Odinga. Other parties and candidates have been marginalised to such an extent that it is likely the winner will get more than 50 percent of the vote and thus avoid a second round. Kenyan polling organisations indicate a difference of only one or two percent between the candidates, who are both at around 45 percent, but point in different directions about who is in the lead.

Ethnic basis
So what are the elections about? According to many observers, most people in Kenya vote on an ethnic basis. A candidate from people’s own ethnic group will get their vote regardless of political orientation. That may be true, Sjögren concurs, but it does not mean political issues are not debated. Opposition parties have promised to end widespread corruption. They also want to increase decentralisation of state power and give more money to counties. Another pledge is to implement the recommendations of a report by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission from 2013 that investigated all violence and injustices since independence. The report has so far only gathered dust on a shelf. For its part, the ruling party wants to talk about development projects it has initiated since the previous elections, mainly involving infrastructure and rural electrification.

NAI researcher Anders Sjögren.

“Having said that, few people are undecided about their vote. Therefore, the elections are less about convincing undecided voters and more about ensuring that one's supporters really go and vote come election day. And the parties' supporters consist mainly of people from certain ethnic blocs”, Sjögren points out.

Both contending parties have more than one ethnic group among their supporters. Previously, surveys conducted in Kenya have shown that people, and especially opposition supporters, believe that the authorities favour some groups and disadvantage others.

“True or not, that's what people believe and people's perceptions about things are important. Historically in Kenya, all governments have tended to favour some ethnic groups”, Sjögren remarks.

All this means that mobilisation of supporters is likely to determine the outcome – if things go as they are supposed to, that is. Sjögren is critical of how the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has prepared for the elections.

The final voters’ register has not been published yet, which according to law must be done one month ahead of the elections. This was precisely one of the uncertainties surrounding the previous elections. Moreover, an audit firm reviewing the list discovered more than one million deceased people in the register. Many others had wrong ID numbers or addresses.

President interfered
There has also been contention over the tender to provide ballot papers. The opposition brought a case to court, and won, because the IEBC had waived rules of public procurement. However, after the court’s decision, President Kenyatta attacked the judiciary, accusing it of being biased towards the opposition.

"In the end, a company from Dubai with alleged business ties to family members of the president kept the contract. After Kenyatta’s interference, the judiciary has not ruled against the government”, Sjögren notes.

Also the tallying of the votes has been the subject of controversy. In the 2013 elections, local results were announced immediately, after which all ballot papers were transported to the capital Nairobi. Even though the aggregate results were given after one week, it took several months before the complete and final results were published, something many people considered suspect. In order to prevent a similar occurrence this year, NGOs in Kenya together with the opposition brought a court case arguing that local (constituency-level) results should be final, because there were too many opportunities to tamper with the ballots on the journey to Nairobi. The court ruled in their favour.

“The IEBC has had a secretive approach and it is difficult not to perceive it as either not very competent or not completely impartial. For instance, the electronic system should be tested in advance to avoid problems on election day. This has so far not been done. Things are set up for trouble”, Sjögren observes.

Contested results trigger violence
Suspicions of manipulation can have severe consequences. If there are doubts about vote-rigging, which would most likely favour the government – which has the resources and opportunities to carry it out – nobody knows what will happen, Sjögren points out. Furthermore, politicians and supporters are not the same thing. Even if leaders call for peace this does not mean that their supporters will remain calm.

“If the election results are contested, I don’t think police and security forces would allow even peaceful demonstrations. And that could trigger violence. The only thing that would definitely prevent violence would be flawless elections. However, the preparations by the IEBC do not indicate that this will be the case”, Sjögren concludes.

TEXT: Johan Sävström

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