International and domestic election observer missions are gaining importance globally. Kenya is holding its general election today and due to the level of democratisation, the country will have several election observer missions.
But going by the 2017 elections when observers gave the presidential election a clean pass, only for the outcome to be annulled by the Supreme Court, there is an important question that critics have asked. Do election observer missions have the necessary tools to detect the complex nature of irregularities and illegalities perpetrated by various actors during elections?
Criticism of the role of election observer missions has been three-pronged. They have been accused of being partisan, not having accurate or consistent information needed to check any malpractices effectively and finally, being unable to detect and deter electoral irregularities.
It is often held that election observation, when conducted impartially and effectively, fends off electoral fraud and violence. Observers also play a crucial role in ensuring elections are transparent, free and fair and that the outcome is accepted by all. It, therefore, legitimises the electoral outcome. The United Nations says election observation is a valuable tool for improving the quality of elections and building public confidence in the honesty of electoral processes.
Observation helps promote and protect 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 go wrong. In 2017 in Kenya, the first election was given a clean bill of health by the EU 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 to 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. 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 democractic governance through election.
-Mr Obonyo is a Public Policy Analyst. [email protected]