Why Kenya must learn to live with poll ob­servers

Im­prove­ments are, how­ever, needed in terms of per­son­nel, tools and ap­proaches

Business Daily (Kenya) - - IDEAS & DEBATE - MIKE OLIEWO is a Pub­lic Pol­icy An­a­lyst, based in Nairobi.

Ever since the re­sults of the Au­gust 8 Gen­eral Elec­tion were de­clared, and do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional ob­ser­va­tion bod­ies gave their pre­lim­i­nary re­ports, opinion has been sharply di­vided over the ac­cu­racy of the re­ports.

It is there­fore cru­cial to in­ter­ro­gate not only the ra­tio­nale be­hind the said re­ports, but also the Kenyan pub­lic per­cep­tion of elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion groups.

Let’s start with the basics.

One, elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion groups do not con­duct elec­tions in any coun­try. That is the busi­ness of Elec­tion Man­age­ment Bod­ies (EMBS).

The Kenyan ver­sion is the In­de­pen­dent Elec­toral and Bound­aries Com­mis­sion (IEBC). The IEBC has a con­sti­tu­tional man­date to con­duct elec­tions and de­clare the win­ners and losers.

Two, elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion groups are not opinion polling agen­cies. They don’t gauge which can­di­date is more pop­u­lar than the other. As such they don’t even con­duct exit polls.

Three, elec­tion ob­servers are quite dif­fer­ent from elec­tion mon­i­tors.

Whereas elec­tion mon­i­tors have the lee­way to in­ter­vene in the elec­tion pro­cesses, ob­servers, on the other hand, have their ju­ris­dic­tions lim­ited to merely ob­serve, record and re­port all that they wit­ness.

But why has elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion gained uni­ver­sal ac­cep­tance as a valu­able ex­er­cise world­wide?

The answers and the ra­tio­nale are mul­ti­ple.

First, elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion has been widely ac­cepted as a use­ful tool to lift the thresh­old of in­tegrity of the elec­toral pro­cesses, which in­cre­men­tally trig­ger im­proved voter turnout, and ac­cord­ingly but­tress pub­lic con­fi­dence, in the very crit­i­cal en­deav­our.

Se­condly, no thief wants to be recorded with his hands in­side the cookie-jar. Elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion has proven to be a re­li­able de­ter­rent to in­di­vid­u­als and in­sti­tu­tions that could be eas­ily tempted to con­tam­i­nate the elec­toral pro­cesses and/or fid­dle with the re­sults.

Thirdly, in­sti­tu­tion­alised elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion groups have in most cases pro­vided very re­li­able ba­sis for the anal­y­sis and in­ter­ro­ga­tion of an elec­tion from a cit­i­zens’ per­spec­tive.

In­sti­tu­tion­alised elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion groups op­er­ate on uni­ver­sally ac­cepted prin­ci­ples which in­clude im­par­tial­ity, ac­cu­racy, dili­gence, ob­jec­tiv­ity and non-par­ti­san­ship in any elec­toral con­test. They manda­to­rily pro­vide con­crete Codes of Con­duct, a stan­dard Pledge of Neu­tral­ity and a bind­ing com­mit­ment to obey the Con­sti­tu­tions, the statutes and all other laws op­er­a­tional in the host coun­tries.

How­ever, more of­ten than not, opin­ions get di­vided on re­sults.

But why? It is sim­ply be­cause in highly po­larised so­ci­eties like Kenya, and where elec­toral con­tests pro­duce “win­ner-takes-it-all” re­sults, any ob­ser­va­tion re­port is al­ways in­evitably hailed and de­monised in equal mea­sure. In a coun­try such as ours, elec­toral con­tests are so di­vi­sive and dan­ger­ously po­lar­is­ing, to the verge of threat­en­ing the so­cial fabric of the coun­try.

As re­cently wit­nessed in Kenya, it ap­pears one po­lit­i­cal for­ma­tion con­cen­trated a lot in most as­pects of the elec­toral process, but suf­fered a lim­i­ta­tion in mon­i­tor­ing the as­pect of re­sults trans­mis­sion. And the out­come was any­body’s guess.

But this is hardly strange in Kenya, be­cause de­pend­ing on who you talk to, any in­sti­tu­tion that had any­thing to do with the just con­cluded elec­tion, is ei­ther praised or vil­i­fied.

This ap­plies equally to the Supreme Court that heard and de­ter­mined the pres­i­den­tial pe­ti­tion, which even­tu­ally in­val­i­dated and nul­li­fied the elec­tion.

Sim­i­larly, the guilt or in­no­cence of the In­de­pen­dent Elec­toral and Bound­aries Com­mis­sion (IEBC) of­fi­cials and man­agers, de­pends on who you ask!

The po­lit­i­cal di­vide is so pre­dictable and stark, one can al­most touch the raw feelings. The pre­lim­i­nary re­ports were bound to elicit mixed re­ac­tions. The crit­ics were so fu­ri­ous and ag­i­tated that they ig­nored the fact that all the re­ports which were re­leased, were merely pre­lim­i­nary.

More de­tailed and con­clu­sive re­ports are there­fore ex­pected soon, and which will ac­cord­ingly and hope­fully ad­dress the con­cerns of the pro­tag­o­nists.

But the work of elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion bod­ies hasn’t be­come eas­ier, world­wide, be­cause, thanks to ad­vances in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, the ma­nip­u­la­tion of elec­tion pro­cesses has also be­come more com­plex. This has been cou­pled with, and com­pli­cated by the adop­tion, re­ten­tion or re­jec­tion of dig­i­tal and/or man­ual sys­tems of elec­tions, or a hy­brid of both.

This con­se­quently calls for more im­prove­ments in to­day’s elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion in terms of per­son­nel, tools and ap­proaches. This cov­ers the en­tire pol­icy frame­work and con­cept, in­clud­ing the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the ob­servers, vet­ting and train­ing them, and equip­ping them with the nec­es­sary tools and re­sources to ex­e­cute their man­dates.

The elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion groups are there­fore here to stay, as a state­ment of sol­i­dar­ity with the pro­tec­tion of the pop­u­lar will of the peo­ple, as well as a solid ef­fort to en­hance cit­i­zen par­tic­i­pa­tion, broaden the hori­zons of free, fair, peace­ful and cred­i­ble elec­tions.

All these ef­forts are geared to­wards en­trench­ing trans­par­ent and ac­count­able elec­toral pro­cesses lo­cally, and to fos­ter the growth of democ­racy in Kenya.

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