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Carter Center Observes Contentious Kenya Election

  • Citizens turned out in droves for Kenya’s Aug. 8 general election, with some standing in line for six hours or more.

  • Kenya uses a biometric voter registration system, which means voters are fingerprinted as part of the identification process.

  • Voters went to the polls to choose candidates in local, parliamentary, and presidential races. The top two presidential candidates were incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, who had run for president three times before and lost.

  • Kenyans voted using paper ballots. Each race had its own distinct color of paper.

  • Once the polls closed, the ballots were counted by hand. Here, Carter Center co-leader and the former Prime Minister of Senegal Aminata Touré (center, in hat) watches as the ballots are counted.

  • Touré and her co-leader, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (second from left), observed electoral procedures from before sunrise until long after sunset. (All photos: The Carter Center/N. Siegel)

On Aug. 8, the Kenyan people stood for hours in long lines to cast their votes in presidential, parliamentary, and local races.

Despite their patience and determination, the underlying mood was tense.

No one had forgotten the violence that followed the 2007 election. Then, both opinion and exit polls predicted a win for Raila Odinga. When his opponent, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner, Odinga’s supporters took to the streets. Neighbor fought neighbor. Ultimately, more than 1,000 died and some 600,000 fled their homes.

Odinga ran against Uhuru Kenyatta in 2013 and again lost. That election didn’t see the sort of violence that marred 2007, but Odinga claimed fraud, took his case to court, and lost.

August’s election pitted him against Kenyatta a second time. Many citizens sent their families and children out of Nairobi, worried about predictions of widespread violence should Odinga lose once more. Fears only increased after the still-unsolved murder of election commissioner Chris Msando shortly before election day.

Because of these past troubles, The Carter Center accepted Kenya’s invitation to observe the 2017 election. On election day, the Center deployed more than 100 people across the country, including the mission’s co-leaders, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former Prime Minister of Senegal Aminata Touré.

Despite concerns, voting on election day was peaceful. But no one that day could have predicted the many twists and turns the electoral process would take before a new leader could be inaugurated.

In its preliminary report, issued two days after the election while tallying was still ongoing, the Center said that the voting and counting processes had functioned smoothly and commended the people of Kenya for their “remarkable patience and resolve” on election day. The Center went on to point out that the electronic transmission of results had proven unreliable and that it wouldn’t be able to make a complete assessment until the process was complete.

Odinga’s team was already claiming fraud. After what happened in 2013, he said, he planned to take his case to the court of public opinion, not to the actual courts. The Carter Center and other international observers urged him to pursue his claims through the legal process, which he ultimately decided to do.

And on Sept. 1, in a history-making moment for Kenya and the entire continent of Africa, Kenya’s Supreme Court sided with Odinga and nullified the results of the presidential election, ordering a new race eventually set for Oct. 26.

“The court’s decision focused largely on problems in the electronic transmission of results forms, which our team had pointed out as well,” said David Carroll, director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. “The court stopped short of saying fraud had occurred, but it said the many irregularities and illegalities had affected the integrity of the election.”

Kenya’s key players invited the Center to observe the fresh election. Then Odinga declared he was pulling out of the race because he didn’t think enough changes had been made to ensure a fair and credible election. Though his name stayed on the ballot, he urged his supporters to boycott the polls. There were many protests, some of which turned violent. In all, more than 60 people died as a result of election-related violence.

The Center ultimately decided that the situation on the ground precluded a full election mission and instead launched a limited mission with 10 long-term observers and the same core team of experts who have been on the ground since April.

Kenyatta won the new election with 98 percent of the vote. But turnout was exceedingly low – around 38 percent of registered voters – because many Odinga supporters stayed home, and in some areas, made it impossible for polls to even open. In several counties, voting was postponed indefinitely.

The results were again challenged in court, but this time the Supreme Court declared the process valid, and Kenyatta was sworn into office on Nov. 28.

In a statement issued after the Supreme Court decision, The Carter Center called for national dialogue and electoral reform to help reunite the country, ease its political and tribal divisions, and improve future electoral processes. The Center is currently exploring ways it might help play a role in this.

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