Most Kenyans are understandably bored of talking about elections. The 2017 elections dragged on; they cost lives; and they went hand-in-hand with a slowing down of the economy, which many are now struggling with as they try to buy food, pay school fees and meet their other needs.
At the same time, many are sceptical about the point of even holding elections when – in their opinion – the loser has been announced the victor in the last three presidential elections.
However, while many are bored of thinking and talking about elections, it is clear – as the final European Union election observation report recently stated – that, electoral reforms are needed and must “be carried out well in advance of any election”.
As the report notes, “the very late legal amendments and appointment of the leadership of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) before the 2017 elections” – with new commissioners only sworn in on 20 January 2017 – “put excessive pressure on the new election administration”.
Ideally, this process of reform will start with a change of commissioners and some members of the secretariat. In short, while it is far from ideal to change the IEBC’s leadership between every election, it is clear that the Supreme Court ruling and opposition boycott fatally undermined the commission’s credibility among many Kenyans and that a change of personnel is needed.
However, such a change would ideally happen in 2018 so that new officials can come into office and oversee the reform and planning processes.
In turn, while August 2022 – when the next polls are scheduled – may seem like a long way off, four and half years is actually a relatively short time to complete the various stages of reform required.
This includes the need to appoint new commissioners and members of the secretariat; conduct an audit of what worked in 2017 and what did not.
There is also need to propose and implement a series of reforms through broad consultation that includes key stakeholders.
This is also the time to clean the register, procure the necessary technology and materials and conduct voter education. None of these stages are quick. As such, changes need to start happening this year if the country is not to find itself in a similar position to 2017 in 2022 when new commissioners came in far too late in the day.
The first stage – namely, the need to gain new IEBC commissioners and key officials – is difficult and time-consuming process.
First, the existing commissioners and key officials have to be persuaded to stand down. Second, there would have to be some agreement on how to appoint their replacements, which is complicated by the level of political polarisation and by the consideration that, ideally, this recruitment process should be done differently compared to last time.
In 2016, new commissioners were appointed by a selection panel comprised of four members nominated by the parliamentary service commission and five religious leaders.
However, while this process enjoyed broad political support, it was inherently problematic.
In short, the various political appointees seem to have blocked relatively strong candidates who they believed might be biased towards their opponents, and simultaneously tried to ensure that their preferred candidates succeeded.
This led to a bizarre situation where applicants with the highest scores were not appointed, while many of the final appointees had clear associations with one side or other of the political divide. This then fed through into divisions, or camps, within the IEBC, which came to the limelight after the Supreme Court’s annulment of President Kenyatta’s re-election in September 2017.
Given this context, new selection and appointment procedures ideally need to be agreed to before the labourious selection and appointment process begins. But this would only be the beginning.
Decisions are required, among other things, on how planning is to be conducted in a way that six elections can be held across the country in a single day in a way that is largely free from technical problems. This is critical given the difficulty of distinguishing technical problems — that are simply the result of poor planning — from those that have a more Machiavellian intent and the capacity of the latter to undermine the entire electoral process.
Lynch is a professor of Comparative Politics, University of Warwick, UK [email protected]; @GabrielleLynch6