With Kenya’s national elections scheduled to take place March 4, U.S. officials are working with local governments to ensure a peaceful vote. Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, Rick Barton, said Washington hopes to avoid the violence that plagued the late 2007 elections. Barton warned Kenya has only a short time to implement broad reforms put in place with the 2011 constitution.
“I think the broader U.S. interest here is to obviously make sure that these are free, fair and peaceful elections,” he said. “The 2007-2008 elections had a shocking amount of violence and displaced people, and so there’s always been some concern that there is not a recurrence of that experience.”
As many as 1500 people were killed and more than 600,000 displaced following those elections, in which the opposition accused the winning party of electoral manipulation.
Much of that violence was attributed to ethnic tensions, but Barton said, in the forthcoming ballot, the biggest threat to destabilization might lie in the vast reforms that are to be implemented, due to a new constitution. Those reforms are seeking to decentralize the role of government and create more local posts.
“They’re running these elections at a time when they’re trying to develop this new system, which is going to take a highly centralized government and devolve many of the authorities to the local level. They’ll be electing for the first time governors and there’s an expectation that these people will have quite a bit of authority, including real budget authority,” said Barton.
He added that some of the newly formed county assembly seats have also been set aside for women, though some Kenyans he spoke with said they feared this was “being used to keep them from running for more for the significant offices, such as governor.”
Overall, Barton said, the electorate seemed excited about the changes that would occur at the local level during the March 2013 elections.
“What’s exciting about it is, with the Kenyans that we’re running into, [they] are extremely engaged and very eager for this change,” he said.