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Kenya’s Senate Moves Cautiously on Contentious Election Bill

FILE - A riot policeman stands guard outside the main gate of the National Assembly in Kenya's capital Nairobi, Dec. 18, 2014. A controversial amendment to the country's electoral law is currently before Senate.

In Kenya, a controversial amendment to the electoral law is now before the Senate. The bill would give the electoral commission a workaround if biometric voting equipment fails, but the opposition has rejected the change for fear of voter fraud.

But as political temperatures rise ahead of next year’s polls, Senate members are advising caution and careful consideration.

The Senate did not vote on the amendment to the electoral law Wednesday. Instead, Senate Speaker Ekwe Ethuro sent the bill to committee.

“The standing committee on legal affairs and human rights must, therefore, proceed with dispatch and be ready to table its report on 4 January 2017 when the Senate is expected to assemble for the special sitting,” Ethuro said.

Wednesday’s proceedings in the Senate were remarkably sober compared to the chaos last week in the lower house. Debate on the bill descended into fistfights on the parliament floor and a walk-out by opposition members before the vote.

The proposed change would allow the electoral commission to manually identify voters and transmit results if biometric voting kits fail, a move the opposition says is one way of rigging the election.

Opposition Senate member Amos Wako welcomed the move by the speaker to refer the matter to the committee.

“I feared that the cardinal principle which underlines in our constitution participation by the people in whom the sovereignty of Kenya lies may be curtailed or shortened just to meet the deadline that this bill must be passed today. I am glad through a consultative approach, and so on we have now come to a place where the committee will be given some time,” Wako said.

Protests, boycott threatened

The opposition has threatened to protest and even boycott next year’s nationwide elections if the electoral law is changed.

The rising tensions have sparked concern in Kenya, where post-election violence in 2007 and 2008 killed 1,300 people and uprooted 300,000 more from their homes.

Senate Majority Leader Kithure Kindiki says the committee has to look at the issue with a lot of care.

“Certain clarities have to be highlighted because there has been extraordinary sacrifices and discussions that have been going on between the two sides of this house since this matter started polarizing our country to a level of almost tearing us apart. This is an issue that even as a committee in my view must be looked at in that context,” Kindiki said.

Lawmakers in the lower house said the request to change the law was made by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, or IEBC.

Political commentator Martin Andati blames the electoral body for the current political crisis.

“The political will is not there. Once IEBC encounters those challenges, they should have reached out to both sides of the political divide and told them we are having a problem here… So from that perspective, they should have also have given possible solutions so that when you go and meet the leadership of Jubilee and CORD, then you are able to hammer out consensus and it’s on the basis of that deal that you will take those amendments to the parliament,” he said.

Andati says the perception of a unilateral change by one side will foster suspicion, potentially casting doubt on election results and even leading to violence.

The opposition had pledged to take to the streets to protest the bill starting January 4. It is not clear if this latest move in the Senate will make them postpone a decision.