Letters from TZ

Railing against the machine

When George W. Bush won his second term in office, he garnered just 51 per cent of the popular vote, against John Kerry’s 48. The American people were split right down the middle, give or take three percentage points. For the rest of the world, Bush’s re-eletion came as a surprise because on the world stage, he was not America’s most popular president, due in part to his war on terror, which had caused a global fallout. We wondered what 50 per cent of the American people were thinking when they cast their vote to elect Bush junior. But it was their democratic right to choose.

There is a possibility that the establishment manipulated the result, just as it was alleged when Bush junior won his first term, but I suppose that is something we will never know for sure. However, both elections were riddled with electronic voting irregularities, including spoiled ballots and the near inability to verify that electronic votes or the software on machines had not been tampered with.

In her article, ‘Electronic voting is failing the developing world while the US and Europe abandon it’, journalist Lily Kuo says that electronic voting is taking hold in emerging economies, possibly to their detriment. “In the US 2012 election,” she writes, “56 per cent of voters cast ballot papers that were optically scanned while on 39 per cent used electronic voting machines. Similarly, in Europe only two countries – Belgium and France – use electronic ballots. Out of eight European countries that have experimented with electronic voting, six reverted to paper ballots.”

In the Kenyan general election that was just concluded, paper ballots were cast but there was an expectation that the tallying and transmission of results would be processed electronically. It was also expected that voters would be identified electronically. These expectations were based on the fact that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) had spent billions procuring what taxpayers assumed were state of the art biometric voter registration kits, plus the accompanying electronic vote counting

mechanism. Predictably and in defiance of every expectation, both systems failed in spectacular fashion, forcing the IEBC to revert to a manual vote count. In the confusion that ensued, the results were delayed for a week, at the end of which Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the president elect.

Drawing parallels

When Bush junior first ran for office in 2000, the election results in the State of Florida were challenged. Democratic candidate Al Gore sought the guidance of the Florida Supreme Court, which ordered a Statewide recount of the votes. That didn’t happen as ordered because the Supreme Court (the highest court in the land) stopped the recount, effectively declaring Bush junior the 43 president of the United States, for the second time.

Here again, parallels can be drawn with the Kenyan experience. On election night in 2000, many Americans went to sleep believing that Al Gore would be their next president, only to wake up to the news that Bush was likely to pip him to the post by a slight margin. The same happened to Kenyans on election night in 2007. Many went to bed believing that Raila Odinga would be their next president, only to wake up to the news that Mwai Kibaki was in the lead. In Kenya, violence ensued. In America, the two principals battled it out in the courts.

Fast forward to 2013 and the recently concluded Kenyan polls. This time around, Uhuru Kenyatta took an early lead that he managed to maintain – by the same margin – despite the switch from electronic to manual tallying. Other figures changed when the IEBC abandoned their expensive gadgets and reverted to simple arithmetic, including the number of spoiled votes. But Kenyatta’s margin remained consistent. The final tally saw him claiming the victory with a few thousand votes more than rival Raila Odinga, and just over 50 per cent of the popular vote – he had against all odds, electronic and manual alike, achieved the legendary 50 per cent plus 1 vote. Or so the IEBC announced.

This time around, there was no physical violence. Instead, the violence went viral with dissenting voices taking to the social media to vent their frustrations. On the streets, Kenyans held their peace like they had been prepped to do for months in advance. Meanwhile, Raila Odinga and his CORD alliance took the battle to the courtroom. It is now up to the Supreme Court to decide if Kenya will be ruled by Kenyatta junior or Raila Odinga. It seems that Kenyans may have had to go through another bungled election to move on from anarchy to the rule of law. And that can only be a good thing.