Kenya counts on technology to ensure fair, peaceful vote

Sun Mar 3, 2013 5:44am EST

* Vote a test of Kenya's damaged democratic credentials
    * Neighbours, Western donors anxious for peaceful poll
    * Results to be electronically transmitted to election body
    * Each polling station count to be publicly displayed

    By George Obulutsa
    NAIROBI, March 3 (Reuters) - Kenya has rolled out new
technology in an attempt to ensure Monday's presidential
election is transparent and proves the east African nation can
rebuild its image after a disputed 2007 poll unleashed weeks of
ethnic killing.
    Independent monitors have routinely reported "ghost" voters,
stuffed ballot boxes and other violations in Kenyan votes. But
the 2007 race was the bloodiest with more than 1,200 people
butchered in fighting between loyalists of rival candidates.
    Kenya cannot afford a re-run of the mayhem that brought east
Africa's largest economy to standstill and damaged trade routes
to nearby states. Western donors worry about the stability of a
regional ally in their fight against militant Islam.
    This time, once votes are counted, the results from each
polling station will be electronically transmitted to the
central election commission, as well as being publicly
displayed. The new system, similar to the one used in Ghana's
smooth 2012 vote, aims to eliminate errors and prevent
accusations of foul play. 
    Voting will still be on paper ballots, but voter
identification will be electronic. Mobile devices at polling
stations will not be able to send out any result where total
votes exceed registered voters, a common fraud complaint before,
the election commission said.
    The two top contenders in the presidential poll, Raila
Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta - who have joined the other candidates
in calling for a peaceful vote - held final rallies in Nairobi
on Saturday before thousands of chanting supporters in a final
push before a campaign blackout on Sunday.
    "We have put in a significant number of controls to make
sure things that happened previously don't happen," said Dismas
Ong'ondi, director of information and communication technology
at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC),
which replaced the body that oversaw the last vote.
    "People become anxious when you delay releasing results," he
said, after delays were partly blamed for the eruption of
violence following the 2007 vote.
    This time provisional results could emerge within hours of
polls closing, although the IEBC has seven days to announce the
official outcome.
    Supporters of Odinga, who contested the 2007 vote against
outgoing President Mwai Kibaki, were outraged when they were
told after a long wait that their candidate had lost, and some
alleged voting fraud. Kibaki was sworn in at night away from the
public eye in another move that angered rivals.
    
 
    CLOSE RACE
    Polls suggest another close race this time. Odinga, from the
Luo tribe, and Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, are way ahead of their six
rivals but polls suggest there may not be an outright winner on
Monday, so it may go to a run-off, provisionally set for April.
    The commission has been widely praised for far greater
impartiality and professionalism than its predecessor. But it is
the first time such technology is being used across the nation,
although they have been used for smaller scale votes.
    Some observers worry that the commission has been cutting it
fine to put all the systems in place in time, while Odinga has
criticised the body for registering fewer of his supporters than
for his rivals.
    Two days before the vote, Odinga told Reuters the commission
had not sent enough biometric voter registration kits to
strongholds of his Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), so
his voters were under-represented on voter lists.
    IEBC chief executive James Oswago denied the charges, saying
that all areas received the same treatment although some
politicians had been better at drumming up registration. He said
the 30-day registration period had not been extended, which
Odinga said he had requested, because of a tight schedule.
    But many of the 14 million eligible voters are more
confident this time with the new system, even if some still fret
about violence. They are also encouraged because of a reformed
and more independent judiciary to adjudicate in any disputes.
    "It looks like there will be no cheating. This system is
good," said Isaac Muturi, a taxi driver in Nairobi's central
business district. "This year the system looks better than in
2007, when there was a lot of cheating."
    Results will be transmitted over a purpose-built mobile
application on the Safaricom network.
    As a further safeguard, Ong'ondi said the system stopped
vote tallies being altered once they had been sent from polling
stations and publicly displayed at the IEBC headquarters, on its
website and in regional and other centres.
    Dismissing worries equipment was not ready, IEBC chairman
Ahmed Isaack Hassan told Reuters, "We know the concerns, but we
are working round the clock to make sure everything is in place.
We have been assured that they are ready and functioning." 
    Alongside a new president, voters will also choose senators,
county governors, members of parliament, women representatives
in county assemblies and civic leaders.