Raila needs to be thanked, his poll losses helped deepen democracy

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission of Kenya announced on August 15, 2022 that Vice President William Ruto had won the 2022 presidential election after a close and tense race. The commission gave a tally of 50.49% for Ruto against 48.85% for his rival Raila Odinga. This was immediately challenged by Odinga’s campaign and four of the seven election commissioners, who called the final count process “opaque”.

As he did in 2013 and 2017, Odinga appealed to the Supreme Court. He alleged several irregularities, including fraud, voter suppression and the impunity of the commission’s president, Wafula Chebukati. He claimed that Chebukati broke the constitution and acted unilaterally.

A unanimous decision, read by Chief Justice Martha Koome on September 5, 2022, dismissed all of these claims. As a result, Ruto will be officially sworn in on September 13, 2022, as the fifth president of Kenya, East Africa’s most stable democracy.

Casual observers might be tempted to view Odinga, taking the fifth shot at the presidency, as a sore loser. This is especially true given the Supreme Court’s rejection of a key part of its 2022 petition as “nothing more than hot air.” On the contrary, it is important to recognize the role that his legal petitions have played in helping to improve, entrench and deepen democracy in the country.

Furthermore, as the court ruling states, Odinga’s recent petition will most likely lead to “profound” reforms of the electoral commission. It would be good for the electoral system in particular and democracy in general in Kenya.

Odinga’s lasting legacy

At the very least, Odinga’s petitions resulted in significant reforms and changes in public attitudes. Kenyans now recognize the courts as the final arbiter of electoral disputes. This is significant in a country where a post-election conflict in 2007 led to widespread violence in which more than 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands internally displaced.

Odinga granted the judiciary the opportunity to establish and strengthen its independence. His petition to the Supreme Court after the 2017 presidential election alleged significant levels of fraud. He claimed the commission did not electronically transmit the results as required by Kenyan law, to minimize fraud. The 2017 Supreme Court ruling highlighted that there were issues with the transmission and verification of results.

This contributed to the reforms that were made in preparation for 2022. Through his 2013 petition and other cases related to that petition, for example, the court ruled that the results at the polling station were final. This made it mandatory to post polling station results in every station for the public to view and compare with the online portal operated by the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission. Compared to 2017, this made the 2022 elections more efficient and transparent.

During the 2022 election cycle, there were no internet shutdowns, there were no arrests of opposition leaders and there were no indications that the incumbent President, Uhuru Kenyatta, was opportunistically looking for ways to change the constitution to stay in power indefinitely.

Despite the controversy over the official results, the election was transparent, peaceful and credible. Voters behaved with dignity. The results were transmitted in record time.

Last but not least, these changes have helped Odinga supporters in particular and Kenyans in general to appreciate the role that the peaceful resolution of electoral disputes can play in deepening democratic governance.

Who are the winners?

There are hardly any losers in Kenya’s election. Kenya is a relatively young democracy with a judiciary that is still struggling to build its capacity and strengthen and safeguard its legitimacy. His 2022 Electoral Tribunal ruling is a victory for judicial independence and legitimacy in Kenya.

The opposition also won. Although disappointed by the court’s decision, its leader, Odinga, accepted and in doing so, he reaffirmed his loyalty to the rule of law. Odinga and his team are known to say that their struggle is to bring transparency to the country’s electoral process and to reinforce the country’s democratic institutions. Although they did not get enough votes to win, they managed to improve the country’s electoral system and its democracy. This should be considered a win for them.

Kenyans in general also won. Kenya is no stranger to post-election violence. However, since adopting a new constitution in 2010 and introducing an independent judiciary, the latter has helped minimize post-election violence. Reflecting a country that has developed relatively strong democratic institutions, an independent judiciary and a relatively strong electoral system, the opposition accepted the court’s decision and vowed to continue institutionalizing democracy.

This is a victory for all Kenyans and an important lesson in nation building and peaceful coexistence for the country’s neighbours.

Conclusion

Regular, fair, transparent, inclusive and credible elections are an important element of a fully functioning and effective democratic system. They provide a legal mechanism for citizens to choose people to serve in government. They discipline recalcitrant, corrupt and underperforming public officials. Finally, such elections force candidates for public office to address issues that affect the lives of citizens.

For elections to do that, however, they need finality. This is partly because there is always the possibility that some parties will dispute the official results. A country therefore needs a legal mechanism to peacefully resolve all election-related disputes to the satisfaction of all citizens.

The Kenyan judiciary has proven its ability to exercise independent judgment and ensure the finality of elections.

John Mukum Mbaku, teacher, Weber State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.