Election observation missions ought to do more
The role of the international and domestic election observer missions is gaining currency the world over. Kenya is holding its general election on August 9 and due to the level of democratisation we have embraced as a nation compared to our regional peers; the country has often been an attractive arena for election observer missions from diverse backgrounds.
But going by the 2017 election when observers gave the election a clean pass, only for the presidential election outcome to be annulled by the Supreme Court, there is an important question that critics have asked.
Does the election observer mission get all the necessary tools to detect the complex nature of irregularities and illegalities perpetrated by various actors during our elections?
Criticism of the role of election observer missions has been three-pronged. They have been accused of being partisan. Too, they have been blamed for not having accurate or consistent information needed to check any malpractices effectively. Finally, the missions are not able to detect and deter electoral irregularities.
In countries that are able to plan elections properly and free of irregularities, observers are seen as a vital way to promote the quality of democracy. It is often held that election observation, when conducted impartially and effectively, fends off electoral fraud and violence, leading to peaceful elections.
Observers also play a crucial role in ensuring elections are transparent, free, and fair and that the outcome is accepted by voters, political parties, and candidates. It, therefore, legitimises the electoral outcome.
Even the United Nations appreciates the vital role election observers play. The global body says that election observation is a valuable tool for improving the quality of elections.
The observers, the UN says further, help build public confidence in the honesty of electoral processes. Observation helps to promote and protect the civil and political rights of participants in the elections.
It can lead to a more accountable electoral process by enabling the correction of errors or weak practices while an election process is still underway. It can deter manipulation and fraud, or expose such problems when they occur.
Importantly, when observers issue positive reports, it builds trust in the democratic process and enhances the legitimacy of the governments that emerge from the elections.
But electoral observation can also horribly go wrong. For instance, in 2017 in Kenya, the first election was given a clean bill of health by the European Union observers’ mission.
Although the EU mission had released a preliminary statement raising a number of concerns, none drew conclusions regarding the overall validity of the election, hence legitimising the victors in an election that was nullified by Supreme Court due many illegalities and irregularities that could affect the final results.
Similarly, the African Union’s observer mission, led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, raised a number of concerns in its preliminary report but concluded that it was premature to make any final statement. No final report was published.
When the Supreme Court made its pronouncement on the presidential election outcome, a number of questions were raised about the role and credibility of international observer missions.
More often than not, observers put stability ahead of credibility. Judith Kelly’s article “D-minus Elections: The Politics and Norms of International Election Observations” argues that election observers at times endorse elections to protect their member states’ or donors’ interests or to “accommodate another compelling but tangential or organisational norm”
In this historic general election, international and domestic election observers should be accurate, impartial and bold in their assignment, to help Kenya make progress and strengthen democratic governance through the election.
— The writer is a Public Policy Analyst—[email protected]