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New law permits Kenyan Diaspora to vote

NAIROBI, Kenya, Jul 27 – For the first time in Kenya’s history, citizens living in the Diaspora are set to vote in the presidential elections next year. This move has been made possible due to a new constitution which was largely endorsed by the majority of Kenyans last August.

A draft bill of the proposed legislation, the Kenya Citizenship and Immigration Bill was released in the past week, and is expected to be tabled in parliament for debate before being passed as a law. The new law will allow Kenyans, including those holding dual citizenship to seek elective positions during the Kenyan elections.

An estimated 3 million Kenyans live abroad; they participate in the country’s affairs largely by proxy. They send cash remittances to relatives in Kenya. Infact, in the recent past, the money sent has earned them the distinction of being ranked as the fourth highest foreign exchange earner for the country’s economy, rivalled only by horticulture, tea and tourism.

These Kenyans in the Diaspora had in the past expressed disenfranchisement when it came to having a say in national issues and elections, owing to their inability to vote. These reservations constantly surface whenever government delegations meet them in their countries of residence.

Upbeat and ecstatic

Those who live in foreign countries including the Netherlands either work, study, seek political asylum or relocate. Faith Ogeto, a Kenyan in Newcastle, Australia is upbeat and ecstatic about the new development: “It’s a great opportunity to participate in choosing leadership when we are far away. It gives us a chance to quit complaining about how everyone else is corrupt, and actually put our vote where our mouth is.”

However, there may be challenges ahead as only a manual voting system, and not a more efficient electronic one will be used in the 2012 elections. This may make it hard for expats to vote, as the manual system is too elaborate and less user friendly.

There are also concerns about how the Diaspora voter will be able to determine the strengths and weaknesses of prospective candidates, since they will be largely detached from daily Kenyan affairs, and will have to largely depend on what they see or hear in the media. Amina Bakari, a Kenyan in Bonn, Germany disagrees:

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“When you are within a country, your perspectives are narrowed. Those of us who live outside are better voters, as we have a deeper appreciation and perspective of what development entails.”

Too few

The question of whether the number of Kenyans in the Diaspora will have any impact remains open. Critics have questioned what significance the modest numbers will have. Faith explains:

“I think there is a feeling that we are too few to sway votes or make a big impact in terms of affecting the national outcome, but I think where it will be more influential is in the counties and upper house votes.”

Kenyan elections have historically been hotly contested. Past elections have been marred by claims of vote rigging, the manipulation of results and outright stealing of ballot boxes. Election time has always been full of suspense and anxiety.

The last elections saw a disputed presidential poll between incumbent president Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga drive the country to the brink of a civil war. Post election violence claimed approximately 1300 lives and displaced a few hundred thousand.

The country is eager to mop up its dented image, even as those in the Diaspora are allowed to vote. How these elections will turn out will be a major credibility test of Kenya’s electoral process, even as it includes the voters living abroad.
This article was first published by Radio Netherlands International

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