What matters most is credibility in the conduct of the general elections

Saturday March 12 2016

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event on March 10, 2016 in Kissimmee, Florida. Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in Michigan Democratic primaries on March 15, 2016. PHOTO | AFP  

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This week on Tuesday, I woke up at 4am to the interesting news of Senator Bernie Sanders leading in the Michigan Democratic primaries in the United States. By 8 that morning, the news stations were ready to call Michigan for Senator Sanders in what had been a very closely fought race.

Two things were remarkable about that; it was a major upset in the ongoing democratic primaries.

All opinion polls had predicted a comfortable win for Hillary Clinton by at least 20 points. But Senator Sanders won the race with roughly two points.

But what was even more remarkable is how the conduct of the polls speak to the relative credibility of the electoral system in question. Sample this; throughout the campaign period in Michigan, the opinion polls convinced everyone, including Senator Sanders campaign team, that they were losing Michigan. As a result, they moved on to campaign in Florida.

They did not even bother to organise the usual crowd to celebrate in case they won that state.

The Sanders campaign team was, therefore, caught unprepared as the results trickled in. Though they did not think they would win, they were declared winner. This speaks to how a credible electoral system ought to work. Institutions charged with managing political competitions need to enjoy credibility; they do this when fairness is seen to be practised, not when it is repeatedly promised at press conferences or kept in nicely packaged electoral documents.

In our jurisdiction, the idea of voters casting their votes and proceeding to attend to other businesses as they wait for vote counting and announcement is rare indeed. In fact, the idea of a candidate who has already given up on the possibility of winning being declared winner seems totally inconceivable. In our jurisdiction, we police the process and treat the act of voting and vote counting as a do-or-die process.

We doubt the credibility of election management for good reason. But primary among the reasons is that it has never guaranteed us that it has internal self-regulating mechanisms that will deliver credible results.


We must watch closely in order for results to attain a level of credibility. A credible electoral process reassures voters that fairness and a level playing field are guaranteed. It sanctions and punishes those who seek to bias the electoral process and outcome. But in our jurisdiction, there are some, especially the government aligned political elite, who abuse elections with impunity.

A credible electoral system safeguards the integrity of the results and assures voters that irrespective of whether they are paying attention or not, those charged with running and observing elections are trustworthy enough to deliver a fair result.

In our system, not only have previous elections managers been mentioned repeatedly in scandals, some are there partly or mainly because they serve particular political interests. As a result, one is never really guaranteed that those keen to bias elections will not have their way.

Electoral management bodies are, therefore, very critical. In our jurisdictions in Africa, election management bodies are either to compromised to be independent or simply lack the spine to oversee an electoral process. Though we know politicians and partisans who have made enormous election-related mistakes, the record of actual punishment is negligible. Even basic engagement of election managers with citizens is grudging.

Yet, we can blame the institutions charged with managing elections all we want, things will not change if the logic behind our voting behaviour does not change. We have a record in some parts of this country of voting for ethnic bigots, charlatans, jokers and extremely violent people.

We prefer to be represented by people with no proven record on anything except that they have been endorsed by our ethnic bossman. This is why politicians take voters for granted. They know we will vote for them irrespective of what they do.

Godwin R. Murunga is a senior research fellow in the Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi.