Discussion with the Chairman of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission
Steve McDonald, Consulting Director, Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, The Wilson Center
Ahmed Issack Hassan, Chairman of Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission
Steve McDonald, director of the Wilson Center’s Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, opened the Discussion with the Chairman of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, Ahmed Issack Hassan. He remarked that, along with the spring’s elections in Senegal, Kenya’s upcoming electoral contest in March 2013 is one of the most eagerly anticipated in Africa. After a disquieting turn in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the November 2012 elections in contrast to an impressive outcome in Senegal, the world is eager to see how Kenya’s elections will unfold.
Chairman Hassan spoke of the progress that has been made since 2007’s unsettling post-electoral violence. In the wake of the sociopolitical firestorm, the previous electoral commission was entirely disbanded; the new commission began work in 2009 to evolve a framework for the management of the next election cycle. With donor support, robust reforms were implemented, including the introduction of mobile-phone applications to monitor election results, permitting the transmission of results in real time, thereby eliminating the lag time that distorts results and increasing transparency. Furthermore, whereas commissioners were formerly appointed to their posts, the confirmation of election officials is now subject to public participation and scrutiny: individuals are interviewed, obtain clearance, and then are assigned to a single, non-renewable term, after which they are banned from seeking elected office for several years. The new constitution, adopted in 2010, was approved by majority in a referendum, for which there was an elevated rate of electoral participation.
Correcting for Past Mistakes
The commission also provides recourse for voters in the event of an electoral dispute. In 2007, the level of confidence in the system was negligible as voters who wished to lodge complaints were left to their own devices; at present there is widespread confidence in the commission, and awareness of these avenues leading politicians to concede defeat even before official results are announced. The legacy of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) charges of crimes against humanity leveled at the architects of the election-related violence spurs efforts to make this election more transparent, sending a strong message to politicians that disturbances will not be tolerated. Security sector and media reform are also taking place. A new media council has elaborated guidelines on responsible reporting of election results, taking into account the national interest. Also, a new agency to monitor hate speech has been established. Judicial reform has ensured more transparent appointment of judges: they are no longer directly appointed by the president and objections to their nomination are welcome. Further, a thorough vetting process is underway for all sitting justices.
Current voting procedures are also being reformed. Evaluations were undertaken to determine the length of time it takes for people to vote in an effort to understand where slowdowns and hiccups occur. As a result the number of polling stations was increased. A constitutional provision has been added which requires that one third of the parliamentary seats are to be held by women. Election-monitoring officials are now permanent employees, rather than temporary workers at the time of an election, and are fully responsible for all election-related matters in their constituency. They are not permitted to work in their native areas, rotated to different regions every two years, and prohibited from running for public office for a ten-year period after their service as monitor has come to an end. Polling results are sent via mobile phone directly to an internet server so that they can be monitored in real time from anywhere. The ballots are, in fact, printed outside of Kenya at a location known only to the electoral commission and are brought into the constituency on the eve of the election. The ballots are escorted by security officials and each polling station maintains a count of how many have been issued to control for irregularities. Chairman Hassan said that the commission encourages civil society actors who are planning parallel tabulation initiatives, noting that if the commission has done its job properly, the independent results should align with those of his agency.
McDonald welcomed the chairman’s laudatory view of the commission’s make up and preparations, pointing out that although the international community has become skeptical about the independence of presidentially-appointed domestic election commissions in Africa, the Kenyan case seems to be an exception and much hope resides in its ability to conduct a violence-free, transparent and universally accepted election.