In Kenya, a key role for foreign observers

International observers have been criticized for doing too little – and too much – in the wake of Kenya's flawed Dec. 27 vote, which touched off a wave of ethnic killings.

Noor Khamis/Reuters
Observer: Chief EU election observer Alexander Lambsdorff has criticized voting irregularities.

If ever there were a vote where foreign election observers made an immediate and significant difference, it was Kenya's Dec. 27 presidential election.

But in a vote as tightly contested as Kenya's, any allegations by the hundreds of unpaid international volunteers who fanned out across the country to watch for fraud, vote tampering, or intimidation can make a huge difference in the outcome – and have explosive consequences.

Given the ethnic violence that engulfed much of Kenya in the wake of the disputed vote, some experts are suggesting that foreign election observers overstepped their role by proclaiming doubts about the process before the final tally was announced by Kenya's electoral authorities. Others say the observers didn't go far enough in their condemnation of alleged irregularities.

"We are always mindful to stick to the narrow mandate, and comment only on the election process," says Alexander Lambsdorff, the chief election observer for the European Union (EU). "I want the facts to speak for themselves."

Narrow mandate or not, Mr. Lambsdorff issued strong comments about the flawed process of the Dec. 27 vote, noting irregularities such as differences of vote counts reported at polling stations and those reported by the Election Commission and EU polling observers being refused the right to view vote counts at certain polling stations.

Lambsdorff stopped short of calling the Kenyan vote "rigged," but he has said he has "doubts" about the final result that declared incumbent President Mwai Kibaki the winner.

Observer comments spur action?

It is comments like these that have forced Kenya's election officials to disavow the election results, thus undermining the legitimacy of Mr. Kibaki, and forcing the country's leaders to consider the unthinkable: negotiations.

"Both sides stole these elections," says Wafula Okumu, a political observer in Nairobi, and head of the African security analysis program for the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.

"What gives me concern is that the way the election observers reported their findings may have exacerbated the problem, because they appeared to portray one side's concern," he says. "If Kenyans had known that both sides were culpable, that could have eased the tensions."

Over the weekend, Raila Odinga, the populist opposition leader who narrowly lost the disputed vote, called for more rallies across the country, but also indicated he was willing to share power with the government he accuses of stealing the election.

Mr. Odinga rejected Kibaki's offer of a "unity government" but said he was willing to consider a power-sharing agreement guaranteed by the international community.

Still, his call for protests on Tuesday – despite a government ban imposed during the unrest – is sparking concerns of fresh violence.

That Kenya's elections were flawed, by now, has become common knowledge. Even the head of the Election Commission of Kenya admitted last week that he had been put under pressure by Kibaki's ruling party, the PNU.

Now, reports are coming out that Odinga's ODM party manipulated counts in his own strongholds as well.

Observers also say that Kibaki's party waited until the pro-ODM vote was counted before adding sufficient votes to allow Kibaki to carry the day.

"In parliament, at least half of the seats went to Mr. Odinga's party, and 18 ministers of Kibaki's own government lost their seats, and yet we are told that Kibaki himself won the presidency," says one Western election observer, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. "You don't need to be a rocket scientist to draw the conclusions we have drawn."

Kenyans shocked by vote rigging

Mohamed Datoo, an independent election observer and political scientist, says that the post-election violence is hardly surprising, given Kenya's very recent emergence from 24 years of dictatorship under President Daniel Arap Moi.

After so many years of fighting for the right to free and fair elections, it shocked Kenyans to the core to have this vote rendered meaningless by manipulation, he says.

"The Kenyan people take their power to vote extremely seriously," says Mr. Datoo, himself a Kenyan national, "and in my opinion, the Kenyan people have been disrespected by their leaders, irrespective of party affiliation."

Should the EU election observer mission have done more? Some election observers say yes, while others say that the EU may have done too much, fanning the flames of an ethnic fire that was already raging. To date, some 300 Kenyans have been killed, and 100,000 displaced since election day.

David Throup, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington who has led six election observer missions in Kenya in the past, says that the EU election mission has been "irresponsible" by releasing its preliminary report before receiving a final tally of the votes by the Election Commission of Kenya (ECK).

"They almost suggested that the election is rigged, using the evidence from just two constituencies," he says, after hearing the EU's preliminary report last week. "It's very dangerous, they have destroyed the legitimacy of the ECK," as well as raising questions of the legitimacy of Kibaki's win. "The ethnic violence is already too dangerous; to have these kinds of statements from the EU is very irresponsible."

But while election observers know they can't stop vote-rigging outright, observers who have studied the country and who have watched the process months in advance can make it harder to steal an election outright.

"What an election observer does is force people to rethink how they will rig an election," says Sebastian Elischer, an independent election observer and political scientist at Jacobs University in Germany.

"This crisis has been good for the country in one way," agrees Wafula Okumu, of the ISS. "There is no way it can be rigged like this again in this country. We have seen all the loopholes."

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