Electoral commissions: no more "yes men".

Author:Kapchanga, Mark
Position:Cover Story: Democracy - Electoral commissions in Kenya - Cover story

Presidents' yes men used to fill too many of the continent's electoral commissions. Now, thanks to growing civic awareness and transparency, some of Africa's election arbiters are moving firmly in the right direction. But ensuring free and fair elections is one hell of a job. Mark Kapchanga explains why.

Organising a successful national election is an intricate task. The CEO of Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Ezra Chiloba, described running an election to New African as "akin to a military operation that requires detailed planning and thorough execution."

Electoral bodies' improving ability to run these complex events has contributed to the democratic gains made across the continent in recent years. The commissions are expanding their roles too, as they attempt to assert independence from the government of the day and build their capacities. IEBC's mandate, for example, now includes voter registration, management of the electoral roll, regulation of political parties, settlement of electoral disputes, demarcating electoral boundaries, registration of candidates, ensuring politicians adhere to codes of conduct, voter education, as well as managing polling day itself.

"The increased role means we are in charge of the entire process. At the end of it all, we have to entirely account for our actions," says Issack Hassan, the IEBC chairman (pictured).

But it's not just the complicated geographies, heated political rivalries, and infrastructure challenges that make this crucial job so difficult. Electoral commissions' hard-won independence from the government in power is frequently under threat.

IEBC notes there is a deliberate failure by political parties, particularly those in power, to adhere to electoral codes of conduct. Often, the power of incumbency is more than just name recognition. Ruling parties misuse the official government machinery and resources to further the electoral prospects of its candidates.

Nigeria has a sorry record of government resources being deployed on behalf of candidates. This abuse occurs at national level, which has been governed by the People's Democratic Party (PDP) since the return to electoral rule in 1999, and at the state level where opposition parties, as well as the PDP, have used their control of the powerful State Governorships to influence elections unfairly. The phenomenon is so widely recognised that, in January, political parties signed a code of conduct that they would not use public resources for campaigns. The...

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