There is a need to prepare for electoral cycles, not just for imminent elections
By Gabrielle Lynch
- Perhaps even more importantly, the quality of elections rests on the evenness of the playing field more generally, which is often slow to change. This includes the freedoms and resources that different political parties enjoy, and the rules and regulations that they use to build their own internal democracy.
Elections have the capacity to be transformative: They provide opportunities for political challenges and peaceful transfer of power. They can also help to enact an ideal of citizen participation in politics, and of state order and control that can legitimise key institutions.
At the same time, elections can be disastrous: State institutions can be undermined in the face of popular perceptions of widespread incompetence, irregularities and malpractice. while violence can be used as a political tool, or can erupt as a result of popular anger.
Given these competing prospects, it is unsurprising that huge amounts of time and money are poured into elections: As politicians try to win them, but as state institutions, civil society organisations and international donors try to ensure that they are transformative and not disastrous.
However, in practice, election-related projects often only kick in a year or two — and, in the instance of election observation, sometimes only in the weeks or months — before an election. As a result, the focus is often on mitigating problems, rather than on fostering transformation. This is evident in Kenya at the moment where attention is increasingly turning to next year’s elections.
For example, last week, a German organisation, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, held a breakfast meeting in downtown Nairobi. The theme: “Is Kenya ready for the 2017 elections?” The general feeling was that no, Kenya is not ready.
More specifically, Tom Wolf, from the opinion poll company Ipsos Synovate, drew people’s attention to the stark difference in public confidence ratings in the country’s Independent and Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) between supporters of the ruling Jubilee Alliance and opposition Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD).
He revealed how 70 per cent of CORD supporters, but only 28 per cent of Jubilee supporters, reported little or no confidence in the IEBC in their last survey in November 2015; while 28 per cent of CORD supporters, but 69 per cent of Jubilee supporters, reported some or a lot of confidence.
Moreover, as Mr Wolf emphasised, since the survey was conducted, there have been a number of developments that are likely to have further dampened public confidence ratings.
Namely: New revelations regarding the involvement of IEBC officials in the infamous “Chickengate scandal,” and the disputed by-elections in Malindi and Kericho.
The implication is that Kenya is heading towards an election in which the majority of opposition supporters neither believe that the electoral commission is independent, nor that it can be trusted to oversee a credible election.
In turn, George Kegoro, the executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, went through the IEBC’s Election Operations Plan (EOP). Mr Kegoro argued that the EOP fails to fully recognise the full range of problems with the country’s 2013 election, and thus fails to address them.
More specifically, Mr Kegoro criticised the IEBC’s technocratic approach and insisted on the need for the commission to address problems of public confidence and to engage key stakeholders in dialogue and consensus building not only around the use of technology, but also on the rules and regulations regarding political campaigns and party primaries.
At the same time, Mr Kegoro spoke of the problematic relationship between the IEBC and other key institutions, such as the judiciary and security services.
The general consensus at the meeting was that these preparations are not time bound and that Kenya can become ready for the next elections by August 2017, but that the country is currently not ready and that substantial work still needs to be done.
However, while this is true, the conversation — like similar debates that I have heard over the years — still focused almost entirely on the next (and fast approaching) election, rather than on preparations for more distant and future elections.
This is understandable and makes sense: Kenya has to hold elections next year, and it is better for everyone if they enjoy a level of credibility and do not degenerate into disorder and violence.
However, it also drew my attention to a common problem of short-termism. For example, while it is important for consensus building to take place before Kenya’s next election (so that stakeholders can agree on rules, regulations and processes), it would clearly be better if these conversations were set up in a way that encouraged ongoing dialogue that led to a strengthening of processes over electoral cycles.
This is critical since some things are much more likely to happen over electoral cycles. For example, confidence in the electoral commission in Ghana has increased over time as the commission has been seen to be responsive to criticism, and to oversee elections that have led to regular transfers of power.
Perhaps even more importantly, the quality of elections rests on the evenness of the playing field more generally, which is often slow to change. This includes the freedoms and resources that different political parties enjoy, and the rules and regulations that they use to build their own internal democracy.
However, it also relates to a much broader set of factors — from the independence of the media and role of civil society to the oversight provided by domestic and international monitors.
The importance of the playing field became evident, for example, during Uganda’s recently concluded elections in which the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) clearly benefited from the fact that many Ugandans voted for the incumbent – not because they particularly liked President Museveni, but because they either felt that there was no point voting for the opposition or because they feared to do so.
These feelings were informed by a strong sense that Museveni would be announced the winner whatever happened. It was then reinforced by an NRM campaign that promised development projects if an area voted for the government, but which simultaneously threatened economic marginalisation if an area did not, and which also raised the spectre of a return to war in the instance of an opposition victory.
The implication is that, yes, Kenya needs to prepare for next year’s elections, but that — as far as possible — this should be done in a way that sets the ground for future electoral cycles.