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Carter Center Prepares to Observe High-Stakes Kenyan Election

  • In 2013, The Carter Center deployed a 60-person delegation from 29 countries to observe Kenya's national elections. Above, a woman casts her vote at Precious Blood Riruta polling center, March 4, 2013, in Dagoretti South Constituency, Nairobi, Kenya. (All Photos: The Carter Center/P. Munene)

When Kenyans go to the polls Aug. 8 to choose their next president, election observers expect tensions to be running high.

The race is a virtual repeat of the 2013 contest, again pitting challenger Raila Odinga against Uhuru Kenyatta, who won the last round by the narrowest of margins. Odinga, alleging fraud, unsuccessfully challenged the result in court. He also ran and lost in 2007. That time, both opinion and exit polls predicted his win, and when opponent Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner, Odinga’s supporters took to the streets. The resulting violence left more than 1,000 dead and forced some 600,000 from their homes.

“There is tremendous distrust among the parties,” said Sarah Johnson, an associate director in the Carter Center’s Democracy Program and the manager of its election observation mission in Kenya. “The opposition feels it has been robbed twice, and they want observers on the ground to keep an eye on things. The ruling party, meanwhile, feels that its last two wins were legitimate, and they want neutral observers there to lend credibility to the electoral process.”

“Basically,” she continued, “the more trusted eyes on this election, the better.”

  • Long lines were the norm on election day in 2013, due to enthusiasm over voting under a new constitution, but also line mismanagement by the election commission. The Carter Center offered suggestions for improving future elections in a post-election report.

Carter Center on the Ground

The Carter Center’s core team of experts, along with a dozen long-term observers, arrived in Kenya in mid-April, during the party primaries and in advance of the candidate nomination period. They will be joined in August by a delegation of short-term observers and staff led by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former Prime Minister of Senegal Aminata Tourė. In all, the Center expects to have between 60 and 70 accredited observers at the polls on election day.

Though the spotlight is on the presidential race, Kenyans also will be voting for county representatives, governors, and members of both houses of parliament.

“The stakes are high in many of those races as well,” Johnson said. “About 18 percent of incumbents lost their party primaries, resigned from their parties, and are now running as independents. And because new laws have given governors more power, there is more competition for those seats than ever.”

Kenya reformed its constitution after the violence in 2007 to move away from a winner-takes-all political system, decentralizing power and giving lower-level politicians greater control of resources. These changes were intended to help the nation move beyond the ethnic allegiances that have traditionally characterized its politics.

As part of these changes, presidential candidates now need to earn an absolute majority of the overall vote (50 percent + one) as well as a minimum of 25 percent of the votes in half of the nation’s 47 counties to be declared the winner.

That means that if neither Odinga or Kenyatta manage that – and there are six other presidential candidates who will siphon some votes from the top contenders – there would be a runoff in September.

  • Carter Center observers Emile Codjo and Thomas Koenig confer with polling station officials at Mukarara Primary School in Nairobi in 2013. Carter Center short-term observers witness voting and counting in the days surrounding election day, but the Center's long-term observers monitor the process leading up to, including, and following the election to help ensure that voting takes place in a conducive environment free from fear, violence, or fraud.

Controversies and Concerns

 A couple of controversies loom large over the election.

Kenya uses biometric voter registration – which involves fingerprint scans and photos – but on election day in 2013, in more than 40 percent of the polling stations that Carter Center observers visited, the biometric voter register machines failed.

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission is running tests of equipment and establishing additional back-up systems in hopes of preventing or mitigating the impact of similar problems in this election, but many remain concerned.

Further compounding worries is a recent audit that found that there may be as many as 1 million dead people on the voter rolls.

“That’s not an issue if the biometric machines work,” Johnson said, “but if they fail, and stations resort to checking voter registration manually, it leaves the door open to fraud or concerns of malfeasance.”

  • Presiding Officer Lillian Anyango displays a marked ballot during the vote counting process in the view of party agents and election observers at Kilimani Primary School polling station in Nairobi. The Carter Center delegation found that in spite of serious shortcomings in the 2013 election commission’s management of technology and tabulation of results, the paper-based procedure for counting and tallying presented enough guarantees to preserve the will of Kenyan voters.

Another controversy involves the printing of the ballots. The government recently awarded the contract to a Dubai company that the opposition alleges has ties to Kenyatta’s family and that was caught up in claims of overprinting and ballot-stuffing in the recent Uganda election.

“This is an interesting and important election,” Johnson said. “The Carter Center is honored to have been invited by the election commission to offer an unbiased assessment of the electoral process and to play a small part in ensuring that the will of the Kenyan people is carried out.”

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