Why elections fail integrity test

An official of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission verifies information about a voter's document at Mwihoko Primary School in Laikipia on June 3, 2016. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Several factors combine to undermine the electoral process in many countries in Africa.

  • One of these factors is the system of elections that many countries such as Kenya use.

  • The last factor is how power is used in Africa – there is widespread abuse of power or use of power without respect for the law.

There are certain standards and values that guide the conduct of elections everywhere. These include the extent to which the laws facilitate equality of the vote, transparency in the electoral process both before and after, and how the pre-election environment is organised. They also include the conduct of fair campaigns, access to media, and the extent to which parties and candidates access and use campaign finances. The standards also required voters to go to the ballot without any form of intimidation.

There are standards for a post-election environment too. Resolving disputes through legally established institutions, without violence, is an important standard in this regard. The institutions for conducting elections and resolving the disputes are required to be free from influence and direction of any individual.

Expectedly because of our own short sightedness as a country, we have tended to focus on vote count as the only important aspect of the election. The political opposition has compelled everyone to look at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) as the main thing to worry about. The government and the ruling party have also been drawn towards the IEBC. Everyone has fallen in love with the IEBC and forgotten that the elections is not an event but a process that begins the moment one election ends. But the IEBC is not the election. Vote count is not the only thing that matters in an election. In fact, the electoral process is as good as the result of the election. This short sightedness may see the country going to the 2017 General Election without proper preparation. There is thus a need for caution on how we approach the IEBC challenge because the commission is just one element in a long chain of other things that few are interested in paying attention to.

But it is not in Kenya alone where elections are approached with short sightedness. Everywhere in the world, today, there is a tendency to pay attention only to the vote count and forget about other important elements. Because of this, elections in established democracies are also failing the integrity test. Malpractices such as ballot box fraud, intimidation of voters at polling stations by “gangs for hire”, flawed voter registers, and many other malpractices are cited as shortcomings in elections in many parts of the world today. Although such flaws are often cited as an “African problem”, there is good evidence that even well-established democracies conduct elections that fail the integrity test. America today tops the list of established democracies where “human error” is blamed for certain flaws.


Although elections are an important marker of democracy, the flaws in the electoral process tend to jeopardise democracy. In many instances, elections are producing results that are giving elections and democracy a bad reputation. In America, the Bush-Gore electoral contest was just an embarrassment that many Americans would want to forget. Today the Republicans in America have produced Donald Trump through the party process yet there are all indications that Mr Trump has a questionable character. In Australia, they could not account for about 1,300 votes during a vote recount. In Britain in 2014, there were “ghost voters”.

All the same, it is in Africa where we see a display of some of the worst records in electoral flaws. Elections produce laughable results. Sometimes leaders just decide on the results they want to see – and they get them. Indeed, today many leaders are no longer scared of conducting elections; Burundi, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Gambia, and Equatorial Guinea have conducted some of the most laughable elections.

Several factors combine to undermine the electoral process in many countries in Africa. One of these factors is the system of elections that many countries such as Kenya use. The system in use in Kenya and many other countries prioritises individuals to win with a simple majority, even if it means one winning by one vote. This incentivises individuals to use any method to out-compete rivals. This is what leads people to mobilising on basis of tribe. They create fear and make it look like a referendum on the existence of the tribe.

They make it a real tribal contest. This system has outlived its usefulness. Many failed elections in Africa are in countries that use this system of elections.

This is not to deny that there are flaws in elections in countries using different election methods and especially the system where people vote for political parties without any geographical constituency. Where people vote only for political parties rather than persons, the process creates opportunities to accommodate many interests. This system provides a better opportunity for addressing electoral challenges; it gives many players rooms for representation. Under this system the parties compete as institutions without necessarily placing emphasise on their individual candidates. The system helps the parties to grow as institutions with cross national support. They fight it out on basis of their policies rather than on basis of ethnicity.


The second reason contributing to failed elections in Africa is the nature of economy and poverty in many countries. Some of the countries are so poor that they cannot organise a credible election. They compromise the process often because of poor state funding. In the recent election held in Burundi, the government announced publicly that the country did not have money to prepare and conduct the controversial polls in which the president forced his third term. The government was keen to organise a “harambee” to raise funds for the elections. Tied to the poor economies is also high level of poverty in many countries in the continent. With poor voters, there is increased appetite to bribe voters. And because many voters in these conditions do not associate the quality of government with the votes they cast, they accept bribes from candidates and their political parties. This leads to having leaders in office who have faith only in their money rather than their constituencies.

The last factor is how power is used in Africa – there is widespread abuse of power or use of power without respect for the law. Leaders are use manipulating elections to maintain their hold on power. This is what has led to the recent increased tendency to force a third term in office even where the constitutions does not allow.

Addressing these challenges require looking deeply into the “election value chain”. First, in Kenya, and elsewhere in Africa, if we want to conduct elections that pass the integrity test, the beginning point is to change the political culture. Culture of course cannot be changed overnight. But there are interventions that can make a difference. Effective enforcement of the law on elections, and punishing leaders who breach election laws, is one example. Expectedly, there is no single institution with the courage to hold a stick against powerful politicians when they breach the law. Instead of punishing them, the leaders in many of our institutions die to please the leaders who breach the law. In fact part of the problems plaguing the IEBC today is simply this: the IEBC has been cosy with politicians – both in government and the opposition – who breach the law. The commission is paying for this. But this is where things must begin: effective enforcement of the law not only regarding elections but also regarding other matters in the society.

Maybe what we may also consider is electronic voting. This can address some of the problems with regard to vote counting.

But for best results we need to move from the current electoral system to Proportional Representation. The current system will continue leading us into conflicts because of the flaws it invites.



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