Electoral Reforms In Kenya: Misses And Opportunities In Kenya’s Rising Democracy

By Javas Bigambo

The integrity of the electoral process enhances democracy in a country. The social contract negotiated by politicians and citizens during political campaigns is sealed through voting. This means that the sanctity of the electoral process is a critical ingredient in enabling and sustaining the purity of a democracy.

In Kenya, the electoral process has had many challenges, including incessant electoral malpractices that have dogged every election since the single-party, multiparty system to the current post-2010 Constitution. Despite the many attempts to streamline the process, real electoral reforms have remained a major challenge and mirage in Kenya. 

The Constitution of Kenya 2010, which shelters very progressive human rights and democratic ideals, is emphatic on the need to have citizens (of the age of majority) exercising their political rights; free, fair and verifiable elections; free from improper influence; free from violence; transparent and administered impartially. 

Its promulgation heralded significant electoral reforms. This included the Interim Independent Electoral Commission’s transformation into the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which saw new commissioners taking office. 

Other structured reforms included an overhaul of electoral laws and related policies to address perennial electoral challenges such as incompetence, improper management of voter registers, delayed voter registration processes due to insufficient biometric voter registration equipment, and corruptible procurement processes of election materials. In addition, disputes and suspicion of overprinting ballot papers lacking the capacity to monitor and prosecute individuals and politicians engaging in election offences.

From this elevation, it has been perpetually iterated that the electoral body, IEBC is the umpire of the electoral process, and by that privilege, the midwife of progressive democracy. 

However, ensuring the integrity of the electoral process does not just rest with IEBC as the main electoral body. It is built and sustained by the complementary efforts of other players such as institutions, political actors, and citizens. 

Therefore, the perpetual lack of public trust in the electoral process is a function of disjointed operations among actors. 

Inadequacy of electoral reforms in Kenya

The multiplicity of electoral malpractices often cascade to disputed election results, or as often, compromising the true will of the majority electorate. When such disputes arise, especially in the general elections, they reduce public confidence in the electoral process, altogether with the institution(s) managing the elections. It is further compounded if the pursuit of justice is bungled by the compromised trial of facts in the courts. 

While efforts have been directed at electoral reforms, it seems evident that the political elite constantly trains their sights only on legislative changes and the replacement of commissioners at the IEBC. Many other aspects of electoral reforms have remained neglected.

For instance, it is confounding that voting inequalities still exist regarding persons with disabilities (PWDs). Those crawling or using wheelchairs find it challenging to access polling stations comfortably. Likewise, the visually impaired are unable to vote without assistance.  

Legislatively, there is no national public participation Act to prioritise PWDs’ interests, such as ensuring availability of brail to enable the visually impaired to benefit during civic education and public participation exercises; the disabled being able to access venues; or ensuring that documents such as legislative bills, budget-making processes and draft documents are easy to read. 

The following are critical components of electoral reforms needed.

Institutional reforms of the electoral body

When institutional reforms are held captive by the political elites, the leadership of such institutions finds itself beholden to the political elites and not the nation. The independence of the IEBC has to be proclaimed and safeguarded, beyond the constitutional safeguards given, to guard against political invasion and intimidation.

Enforcing organisational changes may include abolishing old institutions and creating new ones to establish structures and get rid of unfavourable institutional memory tied to the history and performance of an institution’s operations, work ethic, and management. 

Legislative and policy reforms 

This involves overhauling the legal framework, mostly statutory changes, or amending the existing pieces of electoral legislation, electoral body or elections offences, and making requisite improvements to enhance the management of elections. 

Legislative and policy reforms should not be undertaken whimsically to achieve political ends, but with the aim of growing broader national democratic interests. 

Electoral system reforms 

These entail policy and regulatory reforms to provide clear guidance on the procurement, storage and access to all electoral based equipment; timely and accurate registration capturing vital voter details and properly retaining the data for voting purposes at the respective polling stations; making the voter information tamper proof; incorruptible transmission of elections results, and openness in systems audit. 

Other logistical and administrative reform considerations include ensuring that during elections, transportation of material is timely and safeguarded from tampering. Far-flung areas such as the northern part of Kenya, or the islands in Lamu County, should not always receive election materials late. Yet, there is always ample time for planning and making logistical arrangements. Real systems reforms would ensure such is achieved. 

Procedural reforms in the management of political parties affairs

This regards the conduct of political affairs within political parties, especially the recruitment of party members; dispute resolution mechanisms within political parties; and how political parties conduct party nominations in the face of elections. 

More effort and continuous electoral reforms are needed

Kenya’s nascent democracy is perpetually plagued by various electoral malpractices that disrupt the desirable organised democracy that it should be. Based on the categories above, it follows that proper and considerable electoral reforms remain unattended. 

Electoral reforms have seldom focused on the internal frameworks of political parties and how they manage internal conflicts and their nomination exercises. While many violent cases, assault and fraud occur during nomination exercises, no official or members from any political party have ever been held to account or prosecuted.

Further, delaying electoral reforms only to have them rolled out minimally a few months to the general elections points to the underlying insincerity behind such reforms. Electoral reforms are best undertaken before the stakes are raised by electioneering periods.  Additionally, there is a need for more practical but stringent electoral financing laws and regulations and mechanisms for monitoring and auditing election financing. 

The basis of continuous electoral reforms is to entrench, safeguard and propagate election integrity throughout the election cycle. Achieving this would be edging closer to achieving democratic ideals. Kenya can achieve this. Nonetheless, these desired reforms largely remain misses due to protracted political interests and machinations that obscure objectivity.

Mr. Bigambo, a political scientist and lawyer, is Managing Consultant at Interthoughts Consulting.

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