Polling time in Kenya and Zimbabwe

By Ozias Tungwarara | February 18th, 2013
Zimbabwe and Kenya go to the polls in 2013
Zimbabwe and Kenya go to the polls in 2013

Kenya and Zimbabwe hold critical elections this year. Kenyans will go to the polls on 4th March to elect a president, members of the senate and parliament, county governors, civic wards, and women county representatives. Just 12 days later, Zimbabweans will vote in a referendum on a new constitution and then hopefully hold presidential and parliamentary elections in July.

Elections are country specific in that they are shaped by a country’s political history and the socio-economic context. However, there are some fascinating similarities between the two countries in terms of political context that make it interesting to examine why outcomes in the upcoming elections could be different.

The December 2007 election in Kenya ended in a disputed outcome, more than a thousand people dead, mediation by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, and a transitional coalition government that was to oversee the writing of a new constitution and undertake political reforms. Zimbabweans went to the polls in March 2008 to elect the president and members of parliament. While the parliamentary contest that was won by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was fairly credible, the presidential contest became thoroughly discredited.

President Robert Mugabe lost to Tsvangrai in the first round and a disputed run-off was ordered by a less than independent Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). What followed was a bloodbath in which about 500 opposition supporters were killed. Mugabe ended up contesting against himself after Tsvangirai pulled out of the race. After reluctance by regional, continental and international communities to pass the elections as legitimate, an Inclusive Government (IG) was formed following mediation by former South African President Thabo Mbeki.

As in the case of Kenya, the IG was to oversee the writing of a new constitution and undertake reforms that would culminate in another election.

It is also interesting to look at the two countries’ political histories, which are full of striking similarities. These include an armed struggle against British colonisation, a Lancaster House negotiated independence constitution (1963 for Kenya and 1979 for Zimbabwe), a post-independence period of one party domination, and a long period of strong man rule. No doubt that these factors have had a bearing on governance in both countries.

After stiff resistance to undertake political reforms that included constitutional reforms, both long-term Kenyan President, Daniel arap Moi and Mugabe succumbed to local pressure to re-write the constitution. The processes that unfolded in both countries were highly contentious and tortuous. Draft constitutions were rejected in referenda in Zimbabwe in 2000 (54.7% to 45.3%) and in Kenya in 2005 (57% to 43%). The 2007 and 2008 elections were held under the old constitutional dispensations with no meaningful reforms having been undertaken - leading to distratrously bloody consequences.

In terms of the transitional arrangements, Kenyans were supposed to adopt a new constitution within a year of the coalition government coming into force. A new constitution was approved two years later in a referendum in which a majority of the electorate voted for the constitution. In Zimbabwe, a new constitution was supposed to be re-written within twenty months of signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in September 2008 but the final draft is only now going to be presented to the electorate - almost four years after the process started.

The Kenya constitutional review process was highly participatory with input received from broad segments of the populace and high voter turn-out during the referendum. The legitimacy of the current Kenyan constitution is not in doubt.

The same cannot be said about the Zimbabwe constitution making process. The outreach process was so acrimonious that it severely undermined citizen participation. The first all stakeholder conference attended by about 4000 people was chaotic and characterized by violence and high levels of intimidation. The outreach program that was supposed to collect input from broad segments of the population and ensure popular participation in constitution making was equally chaotic. Violence and intimidation mainly by Mugabe's ZANU-PF and its supporters disrupted many of the outreach meetings. Indeed. ZANU-PF launched Operation Vhara Muromo (Shut Your Mouth) through which it suppressed dissenting voices during the public consultation phase. Police also disrupted many MDC preparatory meetings.

While the current draft is likely to be approved in the March 16th referendum because the main political parties are campaigning for a 'yes' vote, its legitimacy will remain questionable.

In Kenya, the new constitution kickstarted some important reforms that had been pending for long. It also fundamentally restructured governance in several ways. Far reaching reforms have been carried out in the judiciary restoring confidence in what had become a thoroughly discredited institution. Electoral reforms have been implemented after an open and public process to appoint members of the electoral commission. And a Constitutional Implementation Commission (CIC) was established to oversee implementation of the new constitution.

In Zimbabwe very few reforms have taken place since the formation of the IG. Indeed, if elections are to be held in July, as is being touted, there will be very little time to undertake the necessary political and electoral reforms. The Electoral Commission does not have the credibility to conduct an election in a non-partisan and unbiased manner. The state security apparatus has long been manipulated to serve ZANU-PF partisan interests and the media continues to operate in a very hostile environment.

Taking all this into account, there are a number of factors that could lead to markedly different outcomes in the upcoming electoral processes in the two countries. Under the Kenyan transitional arrangements executive power was shared between President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, which enabled some key reforms to be undertaken. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe never really relinquished executive power and was able to block required reforms because Prime Minister Tsvangirai was treated as a junior partner in the coalition.

The AU involvement in the Kenya process was much more hands on and direct through the Anan mediation as opposed to Zimbabwe where the AU more or less delegated its engagement to the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While the indictment of key political actors in Kenya by the International Criminal Court (ICC) remains contentious and could be a double edged sword, it sent a clear and unambiguous message that those responsible for political violence would have to answer for their actions. In Zimbabwe, the healing and reconciliation commission established as part of the GPA has been largely ineffective - with those responsible for the 2008 violence continuing to act with impunity.

Civil society monitoring of implementation of the transition by groups such as Kenyans for Peace with Truth and Justice (KPTJ) has been more vigorous and systematic than by Zimbabwe civil society groups. In the Kenyan case, the security arms of government have remained outside of partisan politics while in Zimbabwe the definition of state security includes ensuring that the opposition does not attain state power. While the Kenyan transition has largely been pre-occupied with political stabilization and political reforms, Zimbabwe has had to devote considerable energy and time to economic stabilisation - to simply pulling the country out of the economic abyss.

The Kenyan process could still be scuttled on the basis of ethnic mathematics, which has always been the bane of Kenyan politics. With more than forty ethnic groupings and with no single group representing a decisive majority, the final determinant of electoral outcomes could be the politics of belonging more than anything else. The glimmer of hope is that, this time around there are institutions that have been reformed sufficiently to be custodians of the democratic process.

This is not to say that ethnicity is not a factor in Zimbabwean politics. It is - but not as decisively as in the case of Kenya. With two dominant ethnic groupings - the Shona (82%) and Ndebele (14%) - contestation is likely to be more about ideologies than ethnic allegiance. Indeed, the deal breaker for Zimbabwe is likely to be the ill-preparedness of the country and its institutions to hold credible elections.

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