Election lessons for Kenya from Mexico

Kenyans must move to a situation where we have strong and sustainable electoral management body and other support electoral institutions. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Kenyans must move to a situation where we have strong and sustainable electoral management body and other support electoral institutions. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

This past week the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission indicated that the country has over 19,611,423 voters on the Register of Voters. This announcement takes the country a step closer to the August 8 General Election.

Despite the many challenges, intrigues and tight timelines several key milestones have been realised on the road to the next elections.

We are not out of the woods yet. The high stakes nature of the 2017 elections are such that more should be done over the next 40 days or so to guarantee credible polls.

I spent the last week in Mexico learning about their electoral systems, institutional architecture and arrangements for handling electoral disputes.

We came away with the distinct impression that there is quite a bit that we can learn as a country from the Mexican experience.

The first lesson relates to institutional strengthening. The institutions we visited all had sufficient budgetary allocations, most occupied their own buildings and the quality of equipment was impressive. You got away with the impression that the country puts a lot of focus on building strong and sustainable electoral institutions.

Kenyans must move to a situation where we have strong and sustainable electoral management body and other support electoral institutions. To expect free and fair elections in an environment of temporary mindsets is to be overly optimistic.

As the reforms to the IEBC were being used towards the end of 2016 a key question was how to appoint members of the electoral commission. I am one who has always held the view that independence can only be guaranteed by ensuring that political parties do not interfere with IEBC. I still do.

However, we have to ask ourselves whether it is truly possible to insulate IEBC from politics, since elections is a political process. One area we will have to relook at is the appointment process. The current IEBC was appointed by a select committee composed largely of religious leaders.

In Mexico, the membership of the commission is composed of full-time independent commissioners. These permanent members vote and make all decisions.

In addition, though, all political parties also have one representative each to the commission so do parliamentary parties. However, these two groups attend Commission meetings but do not make decisions. In addition, all plenary meetings of the Commission are public and any member of the public can attend and observe the deliberations.

Our focus during the visit though was on electoral dispute resolution. Mexico has a dedicated judicial structure purely focused on electoral disputes. The permanent electoral tribunal exists at three levels. First is the Permanent Federal Electoral Tribunal.

This is the highest judicial body in matters electoral disputes in Mexico. There is one chamber at the national level. It is permanent and deals exclusively with electoral disputes.

Below it is regional chambers, of which there are five and one specialized ones. The specialized one focuses on use of airtime during campaigns and addresses issues, which in our context in Kenya qualify as hate speech.

The country also has a federal system. Consequently, there is a local electoral tribunal or court for every state. The system, though complex at first sight, has several advantages. First, election disputes are dealt with through a specialised court outside the normal court system.

The Kriegler Commission had recommended that Kenya establishes a permanent electoral court. From the experience of the party primaries and the numerous cases that were filed in court from that process this suggestion is not idle.

In addition, electoral disputes strain the credibility of the Judiciary. Mexico’s dedicated focus has ensured that the citizens have close to 100 per cent satisfaction with court decisions on electoral matters.

The other area worth learning related to the voters’ card. The process of auditing the register of voters has just been completed in Kenya.

Public reports demonstrate that as part of that process information had to obtain from several other government agencies responsible to various aspects of registration, from registration of persons, registration of births and deaths to that on immigration.

The expenses for the country in maintaining this multiple registration systems coupled with the increased bureaucracy is something the country can avoid, if like Mexico we had voters’ cards with multiple security features enabling it to serve as a national identity card too.

Of course, past discussions about integration registration system have been met with opposition based on arguments about independence. These must be overcome for the benefits far outweigh the concerns.