Before Kenya’s August 8 general election, opposition candidate Raila Odinga promised to be a transitional, one-term president. Uhuru Kenyatta, meanwhile, was gunning for a second and final term. Both candidates’ political legacies were at stake.
But the nullification of the presidential election has thrown Kenya into uncharted territory. It’s been made even more unpredictable by Odinga’s withdrawal from the repeat election slated for October 26.
Odinga withdrew because, he claimed, the election commission refused to meet nine demands he made as preconditions for a credible fresh election after the August 8 poll was invalidated by the Supreme Court.
The political uncertainty is having a negative impact on the country’s economy, as well as its political stability.
The hard-line positions adopted by both sides have created a deep rift between the supporters of Kenyatta’s Jubilee party and Odinga’s National Super Alliance. To make matters worse, the police have repeatedly used excessive force to contain National Super Alliance protesters who have clashed with Jubilee supporters during demonstrations.
These protests could very easily escalate into tribal violence given the ethnically divisive nature of Kenyan politics.
Election commission to blame
Kenya’s current political crisis can be attributed to the ineptness of the electoral commission. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission mishandled the August 8 election. After the Supreme Court invalidated the poll, infighting among commissioners dented the commission’s image even further. The court found the commission committed grave irregularities and illegalities during the August election.
The commission has also aligned itself with the Jubilee Party. For its part, the party has often shielded the electoral body from criticism. For example it blamed the Supreme Court for invalidating the election. All this entrenches the notion that the commission is not exercising an independent mandate.
The commission has focused too much on short term political stability. It hasn’t considered the impact of another bungled election on Kenya’s long term democratic gains. It was given 60 days by the Supreme Court and the country’s Constitution to hold a second poll, and rushed into this process without any introspection.
And divisions between the commissioners are widening. One of them, Roselyn Akombe, has resigned and says the commission’s partisan nature makes it impossible for the body to hold a credible poll. Wafula Chebukati, the commission’s chairman, responded to Akombe’s resignation by saying he can’t guarantee that his team can hold a credible election.
All this suggests that the commission could make the same mistakes it did leading up to August 8 and that the second poll will also be a sham. This would drag Kenya further into political turmoil and lead to more economic strain on the country.
Unlike its opposition, the ruling Jubilee party is keen to participate in the October 26 election. It even used its majority in both houses of Parliament to push through amendments to the election laws.
These amendments dilute the electoral commission chairman’s power and also give priority to manual voting over electronic processes. Confusion over manual processes played a large role in pushing Kenya into post-election violence during the contested 2007 polls.
Jubilee has not consulted widely on these amendments, and has been widely condemned for pushing through changes to election law so close to the second poll. The changes all appear to be knee-jerk reactions to the Supreme Court’s ruling, and a push to ensure Kenyatta bags a second term.
Meanwhile, Odinga and his party have maintained that elections will not be conducted on October 26. To add fuel to the political fire, the coalition he leads has escalated its weekly demonstrations to daily countrywide protests.
The next stage of this battle is likely to play out in the Supreme Court. The National Super Alliance still has the option to return to court to either stop the October 26 poll or challenge its outcome.
But the solution to Kenya’s ongoing constitutional crisis is not legal. It is political. The country is deeply divided along ethnic and political lines. If the electoral commission goes ahead with an election that doesn’t include Odinga, the process is likely to be deemed illegitimate.
It’s obvious that the electoral commission has been captured by partisan politics. It is operating in a hostile political environment and there is enormous division in its ranks.
In the worst case scenario, Kenya could degenerate into the kind of ethnicised election violence last seen in 2007. The feeling of disenfranchisement among some ethnic communities, who have felt marginalised by successive regimes since independence, has once again emerged in public discourse.
Assessing statements made by the electoral commission in recent days it’s clear that it’s unable to hold a credible election. On the other hand another legal battle would only drag the country into further political uncertainty.
What’s clear therefore is that a political settlement is needed to reconstitute the electoral body before holding a fresh election. This might involve forming a caretaker government to give the electoral commission time to effect the necessary reforms.