Editorial Board

Kenya's No-Win Election

Going ahead with Thursday's vote risks political instability and violence.

Good things can still come to those who wait.

Photographer: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

If Kenya goes ahead with its presidential vote this week, it will be making a historic mistake -- one that threatens unrest and undermines a landmark court decision affirming the importance of transparent, free and fair elections.

Thursday's scheduled vote is a redo of one held on Aug. 8, which Kenya's Supreme Court annulled on Sept. 1. In making its historic decision -- the first reversal of an incumbent African president's re-election -- the court cited unconstitutional procedures and electoral systems that had been "infiltrated and compromised." Without specifying remedies, the court ordered Kenya's electoral commission to conduct a new vote within 60 days.

Yet what should have been an opportunity to improve electoral processes and restore public faith has instead sharpened divisions. Arguing that no credible reforms have happened, Raila Odinga, the main challenger to President Uhuru Kenyatta, has withdrawn from the race and urged a boycott. Meanwhile, Kenyatta's party has used its majority to push legislation making it harder for the Supreme Court to annul future elections, and one of its leaders says Kenya needs a "benevolent dictator." And the ensuing violence and uncertainty have dampened hopes for rekindling one of Africa's most dynamic economies.

As recently as last week, even the head of Kenya's electoral commission doubted its ability to stage "free, fair and credible elections." Blaming partisan pressures and intimidation, one of his colleagues quit and fled the country. A group of foreign envoys (including the U.S. ambassador) urged the commission to ask for an extension.

Not surprisingly, Kenyatta wants the vote to go ahead. That's an invitation to political instability or, worse, spiraling ethnic violence.

A better path is for the commission to petition the Supreme Court for a postponement of 30 to 45 days in order to strengthen its systems and staff, and for Odinga and his supporters to return peacefully to campaigning. Kenyatta would remain in office until a new vote could be held.

The court's initial ruling inspired Kenyans and their neighbors to believe that democracy works and votes count. Proceeding now with a flawed election would betray that hope -- not just for Kenya, but for the continent in which it plays such a vibrant role.     

    -- Editors: James Gibney, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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