An insider’s explanation of the difference between a “free and fair” election and a “will of the people” election–Kriegler deputy’s memoir

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In his book Birth: the Conspiracy to Stop the ’94 Election, Peter Harris, a South African lawyer who was in charge of the “election-monitoring division” of that country’s Independent Electoral Commission in 1994 (under Johann Kriegler, later appointed by President Kibaki to head Kenya’s 2008 IREC or “Kriegler Commission”, charged under Kenya’s 2008 post-election settlement with, inter alia, investigating the failed presidential vote) elaborates:

“Why would anyone want to run a free and fair election that will remove them from power? . . . Enter the election-monitoring division, whose primary job is to ensure that the election is free and fair. . . .
What constitutes a free and fair is a major issue for us.  The high level of violence can have a major effect.  In short, the tense situation in Bophuthatswana can jeopardize everything.
Declaring an election free and fair depends on a number of considerations, but chief among them is the ‘freedom of voters to vote in secret, free from violence and coercion’, and ‘access to secure voting stations’.
Since his appointment, Steven Friedman and his information and analysis department have been monitoring the situation closely.  Their final talks will be to produce a report that will help the commissioners make a finding on whether the election was free and fair and a reflection of the will of the people.
I rather like the ‘will of the people’ bit; it reminds me of one of those classic legal catch-all clauses that provide an escape route if all else fails.  It is a bit like ‘sufficient consensus,’ that famous methodology for reaching agreement at constitutional negotiations.  In real terms this means if the ANC and the National Party agree there was ‘sufficient consensus’, then bugger the rest.  The real reason I like ‘the will of the people’ is because, as we hurtle closer to this election, it is clear to me that there is a lot that can, and probably will, go wrong.

Under Kenyan law under the 2010 Constitution, as in effect for the last election in 2013, this issue of potential circumlocution about election shortcomings is solved: the Constitution mandates a “free and fair” minimum standard.  I have written previously that I had picked up on discussion in Washington ahead of the 2013 Kenyan election harking back to the “will of the people” hedging language used by Westerners in reference to Moi’s re-elections in the 1990’s.

I ended up in an indirect disagreement through the pages of Africa in Fact magazine with the spokesmen for the Western government-funded election observation missions (the Carter Center from the US and the EU mission) about the significance of the conspicuous absence of reference to the higher (and legally mandated) standard in their Preliminary Statements following the voting.

The titular conspiracy that the Harris memoir discloses, but does not explain in detail, is that hackers penetrated the electoral commission ICT systems and changed vote tallies in progress.  And that the fraud was discovered by the embedded IFES (International Foundation for Electoral Systems) team funded by the U.S., addressed internally within the Electoral Commission and not disclosed at the time.

The hackers were adding votes for third parties apparently not to disrupt the ANC’s win, but rather to manipulate the overall percentage seemingly to avoid letting the ANC have the parliamentary margin to change the new constitution.

The South African Electoral Commission suspended the vote tally without explaining about the infiltration of the system.  A technology work around was created but the overall control system for handling the count broke down.  Through heroic logistical efforts, intricate private political negotiations and with the grace of fortunate “communications” efforts, the election process was “saved” to the extent of being accepted as a rough approximation of the “will of the people” in the context of moving from majority rule in an electorate of 22 million from the existing system of rule determined by competition among no more than a 3 million voter privileged minority.  Close enough for “horseshoes or hand grenades” as we say.  Close enough to an actual count of each individual’s vote for a “free and fair” election? Not so much.

In South Africa in 1994 there was an understood consensus that the purpose of the first broadly democratic election was to transfer power from the minority National Party the majority ANC while containing conflict from other factions “white” and “black”.  The time allocated and resources available made a free and fair election as such wholly beyond the potential of the endeavor.

Thus the situation in South Africa in 1994 was radically different than the electoral management task presented to the Kenya’s ECK and IEBC (and IFES) in 2007 and 2013.

In 2013 Judge Kriegler was back in Kenya some and was a frequent public commentor on contentious matters involving politics and the electoral commission.  It would seem easy to argue that his approach and expectations in Kenya leaned too heavily on the very dissimilar task he faced in his electoral commission experience in South Africa.

[Updated June 3] “Kenya’s Elections: Observing the observers”

The new June issue of Africa in Fact published by Good Governance Africa based in South Africa has an article, “Kenya’s Elections: Observing the observers” by Mienke Mari Steytler.  I hope you will take time to read it.

The article included some observations on the work of the Election Observation Missions from interviews in Nairobi with yours truly as an independent consultant and responses and comments from others.  Here is one example:

The EU and the Commonwealth missions are also known for their independence and diplomacy, but others—particularly groups representing intergovernmental bodies—are less critical and independent, according to Mr Flottman. The AU mission had 69 observers and visited 400 polling stations throughout the country. The IGAD/ EAC/COMESA coalition deployed 55 observers to this year’s election.

Kenya is a member of the AU, IGAD, the EAC and COMESA, and they share geopolitical interests. Mr Flottman emphasised that observer missions representing the regional groupings are unlikely “to challenge any position of government”. For instance, the IGAD coalition mission declared the party nominations stage a success, Mr Flottman said. “They said the primaries were good. This is a nonsense statement. No one said that, come on.”

“Observer missions from the AU, SADC [Southern African Development Community], EAC, ECOWAS [Economic Community Of West African States]…because they are intergovernmental bodies, there is the ‘you rub my back, I’ll rub yours’ approach to certifying elections,” EISA’s Mr Owuor said, supporting Mr Flottman’s view. “In other words they were not very critical in an effort not to offend the current government.”

 

Update: on the issue of the use of the term “free and fair”, see The Star, “March 4 polls free, fair – EU”:

EUROPEAN Union election observers have said that the March 4 general elections in Kenya were “overally successful, free and fair” despite reported flaws.

They have however said the processing of the final results by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission “lacked the necessary transparency as party agents and election observers were not given adequate access to the tallying centres”.

Speaking yesterday in Nairobi while releasing the final report, EU elections observation mission chief observer Alojz Peterle said there are several lessons from the difficulties that arose during the process.

 

Here is the link to the entire issue for pdf download:  Africa in Fact:  June 2013–Elections: Make Them Count.

So who is “Good Governance Africa”?  Here is an interview by Africa in Fact editor Constanza Montana of John Endres, CEO of this “new kid on the block” of organizations working to improve governance in Africa.

Update:  See also this recent piece from Think Africa Press by Dr. Judith Kelley at Duke: “Watching the Watchmen: The Role of Election Observers in Africa”:

. . . There are certainly sometimes questions about the conduct of outside observers.

Elections in Kenya unfortunately often provide a case in point and the latest is no exception. The EU monitors have been dragging their feet, with their final report now overdue. EU observer mission spokesman, Peter Visnovitz, reportedly promised the report would be made public by 4 May, but we are still waiting. Furthermore, in its initial press release (before the counting was complete), the EU was positive despite noting that the biometric voting process disenfranchised more than 3 million voters.

Why is the EU taking so long for its final assessment? The Kenyan Star claims that an internal report revealed strong reservations about the processing of the results. Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted numerous problems and criticised the swiftness with which international observer groups pronounced all well in Kenya’s vote.

Earlier commotion around international observers in Kenya includes their muted response to the problems in the 1992 election; the mission was eager to send positive signals to calm fears of upheavals and resume aid. Their conduct in Kenya’s 2007 election also drew criticism from the UN Independent Review Commission; the body reported that monitors had at times based their claims on misunderstandings.

Time for an African solution?

International observers are clearly not perfect. But the final part of Obasanjo’s argument – that cure for the problem is for African monitoring groups to take over from international missions – rests on equally shaky grounds.

It is true that African groups have become more active. The AU, SADC, ECOWAS, and the electoral Institute of South Africa (EISA), among others, all now feature election observer missions. The AU started as far back as 1989, and the other groups have joined in the last 10 years or so.

That, however, is where the argument stalls. By and large, these groups are not ready to take over as the sole option for election observation on the continent. They have limited resources and experience, their sponsors or member-states are often not particularly democratic themselves, and most importantly, because these organisations are even more embroiled in politics on the continent, they are often more biased than non-African observers.