1 February 2013

Kenya: Primaries a Study in Election Rigging


As the dust settles after the flawed party primaries of January 17-18, 2013, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) must now abandon its hands-off approach and exercise a firm hand in the management of intra-party elections and disputes in order to restore the legitimacy of the electoral process and Kenya's democracy.

The massively flawed primaries have revealed the fragility of Kenya's democracy and fostered a creeping uncertainty around the March 4 general elections. In the eyes of the public, the fiasco has pushed the country's democracy to the ropes.

The primaries were marked by epic disorder at the grassroots levels, missing ballot papers, candidates' names missing on ballot papers, ballot-stuffing, confusion, delays, disruptions and protests by voters against unfavourable results, double-dealing and deceit at party headquarters. The primaries have put the spotlight on the age-old existential crisis of party democracy, discipline and capacity that plagued KANU (1960s-2002) and new opposition parties after 1992.

The disorder has familiar echoes in the infamous 1988 queue voting ('mulolongo') that triggered the pro-democracy protests in the 1990s. This litany of electoral malpractices reads like a standard text on 'how to rig an election.'

The raison d'être for flawed primaries is that many party pundits that too much internal democracy could allow mavericks, undesired rebels and foes to sneak through the lines, making it difficult for the top leadership to control the party machine.

Intellectually, party elections in Kenya are a classic case of the Africa-wide phenomena described by the influential work by Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (1999). Over the years, the dominant political elite has used 'disorder' as a political instrument to dilute internal democracy, stifle competitive leadership elections and perpetuate its dominance and power.

To fortify Kenya's democracy after the 2007-2008 post-election violence, Kenya adopted a new constitution and a spectrum of legal reforms including the Election Offences Act (2009), Political Parties Act (2011), the Elections Act (No 24 of 2011) and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission Act (No 9 of 2011).

Despite these changes, during the flawed primaries, the real business of political party nominations took place outside the scope of the established law largely in the 'informal' or more personalised settings of intra-party horse-trading and cronyism.

A raft of gratuitous amendments by the 10th Parliament watered down the electoral law on the road to the March 4 elections. And the IEBC took a hands-off approach, trusting party bureaucracies with the important task of managing nominations.

Adding to the problem was the decision by parties to push the date of nominations to January 17, a day before the IEBC deadline for parties to submit their lists of nominees. This appeared like a pre-emptive ploy by parties to maintain a tight control their electoral turfs by nipping party hopping by losers.

Contrary to the Elections Act that requires only duly registered members to vote in party primaries, parties made the nominations a free-for-all bonanza. Unable to complete the nominations on the first day and faced with badly flawed nomination results, influential politicians compelled the IEBC to extend the deadline for the submission of party lists to 21st.

The constitution, anticipating this role of internal democracy in fostering a democratic culture, requires that parties be inclusive with a 'national character.' But intense mobilization in Central Kenya, Nairobi, Rift Valley, Lower Eastern and Nyanza increased the demand for ODM, TNA, URP and Wiper tickets in these regions. While success in ethnic mobilization turned primaries into 'mini-elections,' disputed results and violent protests became a public relations nightmare for the major coalitions.

It also exposed the incompetence and lack of capacity by these parties despite claims to the contrary by party chiefs and organizers. In the end, over 200 candidates have appealed for justice, stretching the IEBC dispute resolution tribunal to the limit.

However, Kenya's democracy came alive in some cases where the will of the people was seen when political giants lost to newcomers. The exit of Dr. Oburu Odinga and Ruth Odinga revealed the burdens of belonging to big families, but also the brutal reality that dynastic power has its limits as a political insurance against a determined electorate.

The defeat of Jimnah Mbaru in the TNA race for governor showed that you need more than campaign cash and cutting-edge management skills to win the hearts and minds of Nairobi's impoverished and jobless youthful voters.

By the same token, the victory of the TNA trio of Ferdinand Waititu, Mike Mbuvi (Sonko) and Rachel Shebesh who clinched Jubilee nominations for Nairobi governor, senator and women representative in Nairobi signified the triumph of populist strategies and realpolitik in Kenya's poor enclaves.

Finally, the CORD/ODM experiment with 'guided democracy' in Nairobi to create 'the face of Kenya' by distributing the governor, deputy governor, senator and women representative seats to candidates from different ethnic groups has its discontents, particularly the open revolt by Kasarani MP, Elizabeth Ongoro.

Free and fair nominations are crucial to the consolidation of a viable democratic culture. The party primaries mess is a wake-up call for the IEBC to have a firm hand in dealing with disputes arising from the primaries and to prepare adequately and ensure legitimate results in the March 4 general elections.

Prof Peter Kagwanja is a Kenyan academic and the President and Chief Executive of the Africa Policy Institute

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