In 2013, the spotlight will be on the Kenyan general elections scheduled for March 4. These are the first general elections since 2007, when the disputed presidential race triggered large-scale violence that claimed more than 1,000 lives, displaced 600,000 Kenyans, and cost the national economy $3.7 billion. Neighboring countries also felt the economic heat through the disrupted supply of goods and increased commodity prices.
Following the 2007 elections, Kenyans pledged full commitment to preventing the recurrence of such a tragedy. In 2008, the Kenyan Parliament disbanded the highly criticized Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) and sent home its 650 staff members due to its alleged role in electoral manipulation. The ECK was replaced with the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC) led by Chairman Ahmed Issack Hassan who, in August 2010, delivered a successful constitutional referendum.
Today, Chairman Hassan still runs Kenya’s electoral management body. However, since the adoption of the November 2011 Election Act, Hassan and other publicly vetted Commissioners now preside over a permanent body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).
To date, the newly formed IEBC has managed to put into place many of the electoral building blocks needed to conduct the upcoming elections in a conflict-sensitive manner and deliver credible results. The initial delimitation process, completed in March 2012, has set the stage for the use of biometric voter registration through which the IEBC plans to add eight million voters to the current voter rolls of twelve million. The commission is also currently building its capacity to investigate and prosecute election offenses by setting up an Investigation and Prosecution Department. This new mandate, not afforded the ECK or the IIEC, provides the IEBC with mechanisms to settle electoral disputes, prosecute any offenses under the Election Act, and impose sanctions against electoral offenders, giving the commission some much needed teeth.
Furthermore, the IEBC is strengthening partnerships with peer organizations that specialize in electoral assistance programs. This includes cooperation with our organization, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), and entails use of its Electoral Risk Management Tool. The tool will contribute to building IEBC capacity to better understand and analyze risk factors, and to take concrete actions, in cooperation with other national actors, to prevent and mitigate election-related violence.
Ongoing preparations for the next general elections have been fraught with challenges, such as the high expectations the Kenyan population has for the Commission, which now has to deliver on a six-ballot election rather than a relatively simple Yes-No referendum. Success will hinge on the IEBC managerial, administrative, and logistical ability to run such a large and technically demanding election, as well as its ability to remain strictly politically independent in a polarized landscape where the stakes could not be higher. To its credit, the IEBC is learning, not only from past by-elections but also by conducting a series of mock elections to test and fine-tune polling procedures and operations. In addition, the chairman of the IEBC retains a very high level of trust among the Kenyan population, despite having made some very politically sensitive decisions, including the recent announcement of the election date. While the IEBC’s announcement encountered mixed approval from the public and politicians, this was the best available option given the fact that meeting the timeline set by the constitution was not feasible and that President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga could not reach an agreement set forth by a high court ruling.
Other challenges facing the IEBC relate to the overall social context in which elections will take place. Kenya faces numerous social pressures, including land disputes, cattle rustling, and a large internally displaced population. There is increasing concern that political mobilization is following ethnic lines and inter-ethnic tensions are on the rise. The country’s military engagement in neighboring Somalia, where the Kenyan army joined African Union forces to engage al-Shabaab, has further deteriorated the security situation at home. Moreover, during a mock election exercise in March 2012, an armed group, suspected to be associated with the secessionist Mombasa Republican Council, disarmed security personnel and destroyed electoral materials. This incident casts a shadow over the next electoral phase in which thousands of voter registration locations will be established across the country and highlights the vulnerability of the 45,000 polling stations planned for Election Day.
Nevertheless, as long as the IEBC demonstrates a commitment to independence, impartiality, integrity, transparency, professionalism, and service-mindedness throughout the electoral process, it can, together with other state institutions, political parties, and non-state organizations, deliver a credible election that is free from fraud and violence. For now this endeavor may seem unrealistic, but progress has been made, and with the right leadership and support this outcome remains possible.