The litmus test of any half-decent election these days is the verdict of the election observers. But who are these people, and how do they reach their government-defining conclusions? MIENKE MARI STEYTLER was behind the scenes at the contentious Kenyan elections earlier this year, where she got an inside look at the process.
Election day dawns in downtown Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. It is still dark as queues of people snake around several blocks of the inner city. Many have been waiting since the previous evening, clutching their identification cards in anticipation.
Just before 6am, a few cars pull up to the entrance of a primary school, which has been turned into a polling station. Out pour several men and women, dressed in khaki flak jackets embroidered with “official election observer”. They are holding paper cups of coffee to ward off yawns and the morning chill.
The observers have come to witness Kenya’s fifth multiparty elections since 1991, but the first since the post-election violence of 2007, when 1,200 people died and hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes.
These March 4th elections also marked the first polls since the adoption of Kenya’s new constitution in 2010, which devolves more power to local government, paves the way for land reform and includes a bill of rights. After extensive electoral and legal reforms, these elections were Kenya’s most complex and challenging to date: in addition to the presidency, voters were asked to mark five other ballots for members of the general as well as county-level assemblies.
Election observation is crucial to the electoral process because it “boosts public confidence and contributes to the integrity of the elections”, said Felix Odhiambo Owuor, country director of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA). “Multiparty elections [in Africa] have only been around for two decades. African laws are suited to one-party dictators. They had an unfair advantage, so it became necessary to observe elections.”
This year the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) accredited 21,554 domestic observers and 1,834 international observers (as well as 6,327 local and international journalists). These election observers monitored contests in Kenya’s 47 counties. The Elections Observation Group (ELOG), a coalition of smaller Kenyan organisations, with more than 7,000 observers in all 290 constituencies, had the largest presence on the ground.
An observer mission’s main goal is to verify that the elections are free and fair, or in the case of many African elections, at least credible. Ideally, long-term observers start monitoring months before the election takes place, witnessing voter registration and education, the procurement, design and distribution of election materials, the party nomination process and the campaign. Short-term observers arrive just before election day to watch the campaign’s last stages, election day itself and the tallying of results.
Observers from the Commonwealth, the European Union, the African Union (AU), the United States-based Carter Center as well as a coalition representing the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the East African Community (EAC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) arrived in Kenya a month or two before the election.
Long-term election observation is vital as it can shed light on pre-election processes and how they can be improved. For example, with regard to Kenya’s March 4th elections, “the party nomination stage was very chaotic,” said Owuor. “In some cases that was the election.”
ELOG began observing the election run-up in June 2012, nearly a year before the election, said Eustace Kinyua, ELOG’s long-term observer coordinator. Unlike some international observers who hesitate to criticise, the local observers made recommendations to the IEBC “along the way”, he added.
On election day, observers watch the actual voting from the opening of the polls to their closing. They verify the election materials at the polling stations, paying particular attention to the ballots, ballot boxes and voter registration lists. Observers make sure the environment at the polling station is neutral and free from outside influence; a setting where voters feel their privacy and security is protected. They also keep an eye out for any signs of violence.
The observers remain until the final and official tally is announced, closely examining the vote counting process. Often election observer missions provide preliminary reports a few days after the elections and more comprehensive ones months afterwards.
After the observers verified that the election materials were in place at the downtown Nairobi primary school/polling station, the gates opened punctually at 6am. The voters swarmed in and ran chaotically around the school field looking for signs indicating where they should vote according to their surname. But the signs were hard to find and mass confusion reigned. Angola’s elections in December 2012 were much better organised, said an AU observer snidely. “They had iPads at the gate telling people exactly which stream to get into.”
Later in the morning, the observers noted that voters looked puzzled by the colour of the ballots, which the IEBC had designed to match the corresponding coloured ballot boxes. The ballots and the tops of the plastic ballot boxes were very light pastel—pink, green, blue, white, beige and yellow.
The blue and yellow were very pale and easily confused with the beige and white. The IEBC deliberately chose pastel colours to avoid stronger orange and red tones, which the main parties use to identify themselves. But this created other problems: if a voter dropped a ballot into the wrong coloured box, officials rejected that vote.
Voters in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, marked their ballots in tents, bus terminals and schools. Electricity in Kenya is scarce and uneven. By late morning, the batteries of the computers holding the electronic voter registry had discharged completely and could not be recharged. Election officials verified voter identity the old-fashioned way by using a large printed book with names and photos. As the day wore on and the sun faded, the colours of the ballots became even more indistinguishable in the half-light of schoolrooms.
Most polling stations closed at 5pm (unless voters were still waiting to cast their ballots) and the counting began. In a dark Kibera classroom, lit only by gaslight, election observers sat on school desks and watched the unsealing of the ballot boxes. An IEBC official unfolded each paper ballot, one at a time, and announced the voter’s preference. Observers, party representatives and IEBC officials wrote down the results.
In a corner, an IEBC official tried to SMS the results to the regional voting centre without success. That night, Kenya’s oft-lauded cellphone networks jammed and the high-tech electronic tallying system failed. The election officials yawned with exhaustion. Their day, which began at about 5am, ended shortly before midnight.
Technical and other problems troubled the 2013 Kenyan elections. Procurement of the biometric voter registration kits—used to create a new electronic electoral roll—took longer than expected, resulting in a short one-month registration period between November 19th and December 18th 2012. Critics claimed that this shortened registration period excluded 3.7m eligible voters.
On election day, the much-vaunted electronic system failed: in addition to jammed cellular networks and laptops without power, many passwords did not work, making it impossible for IEBC officials to verify voter identities. The data servers were also overloaded and officials could not transmit the results via SMS. This delayed counting and raised suspicions that the election might again descend into chaos and violence. The confusion around the pastel-coloured ballot papers contributed to a high number of rejected ballots.
The international observer missions released preliminary statements a few days after the poll. All agreed that the election was non-violent and satisfactory. “Kenya’s general elections were characterised by a huge society-wide push for peaceful, transparent and credible elections,” according to the EU’s preliminary statement.
One month after the election, on April 4th, the Carter Center released its postelection statement. “In spite of serious shortcomings in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s management of technology and tabulation of final election results, the paper-based procedure for counting and tallying presented enough guarantees to preserve the expression of the will of Kenyan voters.”
Kenneth Flottman, an independent elections consultant, noted that not one of the observer missions referred to the elections as “free and fair” in their preliminary or post-election reports. “Holding back on calling the election ‘free and fair’ reflects the reality of the known problems with the election,” Flottman said. “At its most crass, this is a way to say that the government in power cheated some, but the opposition probably would have lost anyway.”
He conceded that “there is a tendency to apply lower standards to achieve a ‘free and fair’ election in Africa compared to other regions [of the world]. If anything, this makes the decision not to apply the label to this election in Kenya more noteworthy.”
David Pottie, associate director of the Carter Center’s democracy programme, contested this view. “It isn’t that African elections are held to a different (higher or lower) standard than countries elsewhere in the world,” Pottie said in an e-mail. “Rather, the Carter Center bases its assessment on a) Kenya’s international obligations and b) Kenya’s constitutional and legal framework.” He added that “free and fair” is no longer the “language of choice in international public law”.
Peter Visnovitz, EU election observation mission spokesperson, agreed: “The ‘free and fair’ phrase fell out of use because defining an election as ‘free and fair’ is very black and white—it requires a yes or no answer. Whereas, in fact, electoral processes are complex and it is very difficult to come up with a concept of ‘fair’ that would please everyone.”
Ilona Tip, operations director at EISA’s South African office in Johannesburg, explained that phrases like “transparent and credible” or “the expression of the will of voters” are now preferred.
But, in addition to being diplomatic, how independent are these observer missions? Of the international groups, the Carter Center is the most autonomous, according to Flottman. “They will not always say what the [US] State Department wants to hear,” Flottman said, adding “they have a record of independence.” The Carter Center had 14 long-term and 38 short-term observers in Kenya and visited 265 of the 33,400 polling stations.
The EU and the Commonwealth missions are also known for their independence and diplomacy, but others—particularly groups representing intergovernmental bodies—are less critical and independent, according to Flottman. The AU mission had 69 observers and visited 400 polling stations throughout the country. The IGAD/ EAC/COMESA coalition deployed 55 observers to this year’s election.
Kenya is a member of the AU, IGAD, the EAC and COMESA, and they share geopolitical interests. Flottman emphasised that observer missions representing the regional groupings are unlikely “to challenge any position of government”. For instance, the IGAD coalition mission declared the party nominations stage a success, Flottman said. “They said the primaries were good. This is a nonsense statement. No one said that, come on.”
“Observer missions from the AU, SADC [Southern African Development Community], EAC, ECOWAS [Economic Community Of West African States]…because they are intergovernmental bodies, there is the ‘you rub my back, I’ll rub yours’ approach to certifying elections,” EISA’s Owuor said, supporting Flottman’s view. “In other words they were not very critical in an effort not to offend the current government.”
As well as monitoring elections by direct observation, some observer groups also verify results independently through parallel voter tabulation (PVT), an election observation method where ballots are counted independently of the electoral commission at a representative random sample of polling stations. In Kenya, ELOG was the only group that used this system to authenticate the election results autonomously.
ELOG found that the IEBC’s official results were “consistent with ELOG’s PVT projections” and that the group was confident that the election day process was “generally credible”. After the election, the losing presidential candidate Raila Odinga challenged the election results. The Supreme Court upheld Uhuru Kenyatta’s win on March 30th and cited ELOG’s independent voting results in its decision, ELOG’s Kinyua said.
Local and international election observer missions are vital to African elections—domestic observers for their long-term and ongoing role, and international observers for bringing international experience and insight. These election observation groups highlight shortcomings but also give elections credibility. One day, they might call all African elections credible and transparent—or even free and fair. DM
This article was originally published in Africa in Fact, a monthly magazine published by Good Governance Africa (GGA). GGA is a research and advocacy organisation that works to improve government performance on the continent.
Photo: Voter polling records are seen at the re-tallying centre for votes after the Kenya Supreme Court issued an order in the Presidential poll petition in Kenya’s capital Nairobi March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Noor Khamis