Ideas & Debate

Why Kenya must learn to live with poll observers

Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission Marietje Schaake.
Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission Marietje Schaake. She says the mission is impartial and does not favour any candidate or political party. PHOTO | EMMA NZIOKA | NATION MEDIA GROUP   

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.