Kenya’s Imperfect Election

Kenyan citizens line up to cast their ballots in today's election. (Photo: Voice of America)

Kenyan citizens line up to cast their ballots in today’s election. (Photo: VOA)

Long lines as biometric kits fail, sporadic violence that has resulted in death, and accusations of vote buying have not stopped more than 14 million Kenyans from heading to the polls. The international community and many Kenyans are worried that today’s election could result in a repeat of the 2007 election that resulted in more than 1,133 deaths and hundreds of thousands of displaced people. While not perfect, it does seem that Kenya’s 10th election since independence in 1963 will not be a repeat of 2007.

The dynamic has changed. First, Kenyans showed when they approved the constitution in 2010 that they had a new vision for the future. Second, while many political campaigns are still based on tribal affiliation as in the past,  the current candidates do not want to be accused of instigating violence. Kenya has revitalized its judiciary and the heavy hand of the International Criminal Court seems to be in the back of every candidate’s mind. Third, Kenyans themselves realize that in 2007 they stepped up to the precipice and almost dissolved into a failed state, and this time around citizens and civil society have had five years of preparation to prevent a repeat of the past.

Today there were flaws in the election process. People died across Kenya and many are still fearful about the potential for violence. In the run up to the election, the Kenyan financial markets were less fearful. The currency appreciated over the past two months and even the stock market is showing gains. This might have a lot more to do with the long-term growth potential of the Kenyan economy than an overwhelming confidence in the election process, but the fact that the markets did not go down in the past month is a positive sign. The business community, as an important stakeholder in the outcome of this election, is also an active participant in trying to ensure a peaceful and free election.

In 2012 the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) established MKenya Daima (My Kenya) as a private sector initiative to build a foundation for a better Kenya based on the ideals of the new constitution.  The MKenya Daima campaign organized several forums between the business community and the media, civil society, and government to emphasize the need for peaceful elections. In addition, the MKenya Daima engaged in awareness raising events through the media, roadshows, and sports activities on civic responsibility and the need for citizens to improve their lives and hold leaders and institutions accountable.

While I was in Kenya in January, I had the opportunity to observe how imperfect this election process was when the political parties were holding their internal elections to nominate the candidates. Even during the nominating process, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission needed to extend the voting deadlines several times as it appeared that most of the parties were unable to finalize their list of candidates due to flawed elections, candidate protests, and even sporadic violence. It was clear that the party candidate election process was flawed and needed fixing. This is something that Kenyans can work on for the next elections — improve the nominating process for potential candidates and the internal governance mechanism among political parties.

But today all eyes are on the outcome of the presidential election, where eight candidates are competing for the post. The two front runners are the current Prime Minister Raila Odinga and former Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta. The big question is whether either of these two gentlemen will secure more than 50 percent of the vote today. If no candidate meets that threshold, Kenyans will head back to the polls again, probably in early April, for a run-off election.

But the President is not the only office that Kenyans are voting for today. The Constitution approved in 2010 establishes a new Senate, county governors, and 47 county assemblies. Kenyans are experimenting with devolved government in an attempt to bring governance and government closer to the people. This experiment in devolved governance has the potential to serve as an example for the rest of the continent on how to improve democratic governance by creating institutions that encourage and welcome greater public participation and are more accountable to the electorate.

CIPE’s partner the Kenya Association of Manufacturers held gubernatorial debates in February in Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Kisumu, Athi River, and Eldoret to better understand the priorities of aspiring governors with regards to economic development and how to solve some of the problems including a lack of infrastructure, local taxation that discourages investment, and high unemployment especially among the youth.

“We have gone beyond just voting people in for the sake of their propaganda, it is high time we give our votes to people who have the interests of the nation at heart and are willing to work for the good of the economy. The business community is pro leaders who will move the economy forward,” said KAM Chief Executive Officer, Betty Maina.

Today’s election may not be perfect, but hopefully it will be a step in the right direction.

Lars Benson is Senior Program Officer for Africa at CIPE.