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Primary Concern

How important are election primaries for Kenya?

The 2017 political party primaries were scheduled to take place between 13 April and 26 April, 2017. After the Malindi High Court ruled that the IEBC had unfairly shortened the legal timeline for parties’ submission of candidates, the IEBC extended the period through to 1 May.

What followed was chaotic and violent by any standard, which does not bode well for the general election on August 8th.  It raised the question: why have primaries at all? 

Express your views! Please use the IFA citizen journalism page or comment below…

Seema Shah, elections expert, gives a guide to primaries:

Since independence, primary contests in Kenya have been largely marked by parties’ serious disorganization, multiple delays, numerous allegations of fraud and rigging and pockets of violence. This time round was no different. In fact, diplomats from several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, the European Union, Nordic countries, and Japan signed a joint statement calling the primaries a disappointment to Kenyans. The statement also expressed foreign delegations’ concerns about “serious organizational challenges and allegations of improprieties” as well as “unacceptable acts of violence and intimidation.”[1] So far, the Director of Public Prosecution has charged 62 individuals with offenses related to the primaries, including voter bribery and incitement of violence.

What is a Primary?

A party primary is the process through which political parties select candidates who will represent the party during the general elections. In general, primaries are internal processes, usually governed by party rules and regulations. In rare cases, the system through which candidates are selected is laid out in legislation.[2]

There are three types of party primaries:

  • Party congress/convention/caucus – A congress/convention/caucus occurs during a party meeting. Attendance may be open to all members or restricted to representatives from factions within the party. Usually, members vote after discussing the benefits or otherwise of particular candidates.[3]
  • Membership election/closed primaries – In membership-based contests, voting is only open to party members. The primaries may be organized by the electoral management body (EMB) or by the party.[4]
  • Open voter election- In these primaries, voting is open to all registered voters of a constituency, regardless of whether they belong to any political party. These primaries are usually organized by the EMB.[5]

In general, party primaries narrow down the candidate options for the general elections. When party primaries are conducted in a fair, transparent and accountable manner and with respect for the principles of member participation and inclusivity, they have the power to enhance intra-party democracy. Primaries empower ordinary party members by allowing their views and opinions to determine party representatives. They are also useful, because they allow parties to choose the most popular candidates as representatives, thereby increasing their chances of victory. Party primaries can also help publicize aspirants and the party to the electorate. Finally, open and inclusive party primaries can mitigate autocratic decisions of party elites by empowering the voices of rank and file party members and the electorate.[6]

At the same time, however, primaries do not guarantee that victorious candidates are voters’ favourites. Voters who turn out to participate in party primaries tend to be the party’s hardliners, and so there is a chance that winners of primary elections actually represent only one part of the party’s membership. Party primaries are also expensive processes that may be burdened with logistical challenges, conflict and intra-party struggles and animosity. Such problems can threaten party cohesion and stability. Additionally, the focus on individual candidates rather than on party policies can weaken party structures.[7] 

Primaries around the World

Party primaries do not take place everywhere. Where they do take place, they tend to differ significantly. In centralized systems, for instance, candidates tend to be selected by party leaders at the national level, with little to no local-level participation. On the other end of the spectrum, local party branches decide on candidates with little input from the national level. Many parties choose a system somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Moreover, there are differences in the legal framework and administration of primaries. Wherever they are, however, party primaries can reveal a lot about a party’s commitment to internal democracy as well its capacity to organize and administer candidate selection processes.

In Honduras, for example, the 2012, more than 120,000 candidates participated in presidential primaries. The primary contest was significant, because it was the first to be held after the 2009 coup, and it represented the return to normalcy and progress in terms of democratization.[8] Unfortunately, the process was mired in controversy. The pre-primary period was marked by significant violence, including attempted and successful political assassinations. These killings also targeted candidates’ families.[9] One party’s results were contested, with losing candidates alleging fraud.

OSCE observers in Italy noted the emergence of primary elections in the country in 2013, but they criticized parties for retaining considerable control over eventual decisions. In fact, the OSCE observers that centralized power and closed list systems significantly weakened the link between voters and representatives.[10] Intra-party democracy has not fared much better in the United States. In the 2016 American presidential primaries, one analysis noted the unfair system of “superdelegates,” party insiders who can disregard the popular vote when they choose which candidate to support. Since it is the delegate count, rather than the popular vote, that determines the winner of primaries, superdelegates hold enormous, undemocratic power. The analysis also noted how some states’ use of caucuses, instead of elections, depresses voter turnout and rewards party hard-liners. Winning candidates, then, can end up representing only a small section of the party’s membership.[11] In 2016, the American primaries were also marred by violence, largely between supporters of opposing candidates.[12]

Primaries in Africa

In most African countries, party primaries have been marred by elitism, rigging, biased selection of candidates, and patronage politics.[13] Despite the general shift in Africa from one-party politics to multi-party democracy in the 1990s, political parties have generally struggled to embrace internal democratic practice.[14] For example, in many southern African nations, irregularities and dissatisfaction with results of party primaries has often led to defections. In some cases, candidates have chosen to vie as independents.[15]

The situation is not markedly different in other parts of Africa, where parties struggle to balance democratic representation with elite preferences. In Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party of Tanzania, for instance, it is the party’s Central Committee that nominates aspirants for party leadership positions and for national and regional races. It also monitors party elections and appoints district leaders.[16] Ordinary party members have little say.

In the lead up to Uganda’s 2011 elections, only the National Resistance Movement (NRM), the dominant and ruling party, held open party primaries for parliamentary seats.[17] These contests were marked by violence, voter intimidation, rigging and ballot stuffing.[18] In some cases, primaries had to be postponed when voters and officials were beaten and stoned.[19] Given NRM’s dominant position in the country, the stakes of the primaries were high. A win in the party primary is considered a strong guarantee for a win during general elections.[20]

During the 2015 election In Nigeria, the European Union noted that primaries were marred by arbitrary rejections of candidates during party screening procedures, late changes to “zoning” (where elected positions rotate between different areas within a constituency), opaque voting procedures and the use of parallel primaries. In some cases, parties did not respect the results of their own primary contests.[21]

Open party primaries often result in party splits and defections, especially where party structures are weak or when strategic coalitions are formed in the lead-up to elections. This has been witnessed in Kenya and Zambia.[22]

Primaries in Kenya

Kenya has been holding primaries since the early days of its independent history. Even as a one-party state, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party held open party primaries to promote internal competition. The reality, however, was that these contests were often characterized by clientelism and cronyism; ordinary party members had little power to determine candidates.[23]

When multi-party democracy was re-introduced in 1992, Kenya’s new parties also held primary contests. Political tensions were expressed along ethnic lines, including through violence, in both the 1992 and 1997 party primaries.[24] Since that time, primary processes have not improved significantly. Primaries are regularly plagued by allegations of violence, fraud, rigging, and mismanagement.[25] In fact, by 2002, violence, fraud, and biased selection of candidates by party leaders became characteristic features of Kenyan party primaries.[26] In order to save costs and avoid the logistical challenges associated with conducting primaries, smaller political parties have often chosen to use direct nominations.[27] Although direct nominations fail to empower party members, they reduce chances of intra-party conflict.[28]

During the 2013 party primaries in Kenya, 12,400 aspirants vied for 1,882 elective positions. Pursuant to amendments to the Election Act in 2012 and 2013, political parties were required to submit their party lists to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) 45 days before elections.[29] In order to prevent party-hopping, the majority of parties held their primaries just one day before the deadline. This decision made it difficult to secure polling stations and to hold representative primaries. In some cases, voting did not take place at all.[30]

The decision to hold primaries at the last minute also drastically reduced the time available to resolve disputes arising from the primaries. This affected the preparedness of IEBC, which received incorrect and incomplete lists of aspirants. These errors led to errors on ballot papers.[31] Only six of the 59 registered political parties presented their nomination lists to IEBC before the deadline.[32] IEBC extended the deadline for submission of party lists from 18 to 21 January, in contravention of the electoral law.[33]

Overall, the 2013 party primaries were criticized for poor preparation, inexperienced officials, lateness in arrival of voting materials, delays in vote counting, allegations of rigging[34] and side-lining of women and other disadvantaged groups. IEBC received 207 election complaints, 26 of which were from female candidates; 47 decisions were appealed to the High Court.[35] In many cases, women were sidelined because political parties viewed the 47 reserved Women’s Representatives seats as sufficient for the purposes of gender parity. Many officials felt that women should simply focus on those seats instead of vying for other elective positions..[36]

There were also reports of violence during the primary races. Violence erupted in Nyanza, and anxiety was high in coastal areas after the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), an insurgent group seeking secession, warned voters against participating in the nominations.[37] 

2017 Primaries

Parties are now focused on efficient dispute resolution. They were required to hand their lists of candidates to the IEBC by 10 May. So far, the judiciary tribunals hearing cases have received complaints from the Orange Democratic Movement, the Wiper Democratic Movement, the Party of National Unity, the Jubilee Party and the Amani National Congress. Political parties also have their own tribunals, which are now hearing hundreds of cases.

See InformAction ElectionWatch #4 Burning Ballots: Kenya’s Chaotic Primaries for the full report





[1] International Heads’ of Mission Statement on Kenya’s Political Party Primary Process. 3 May 2017. Available at <>.

[2] Ace Project.2012. “Parties and Candidates.” Page 49. Available at 

[3] Ace Project, 52-53.

[4] Ace Project, 53.

[5] Ace Project, 53.

[6] Ace Project, 51.

[7] Ace Project, 52.






[13] Jereon Mimpen. 2007. “Intra-party democracy and its discontents: democratization in a volatile political landscape,” page 2. Available at

[14] EISA. 2004. “Realizing effective and sustainable democratic governance in Southern Africa and beyond,” page 1. Available at

[15] EISA,10.

[16] Maiyo, 58.

[17] Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group. 24 February 2011. “Uganda Presidential and Parliamentary Elections 18 February 2011. Page 7. Available at

[18] Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group-Uganda, 7.


[20] Plan Melina Platas Izama and Pia Raffler. 2016. “Meet the Candidates: Information and Accountability in Primary and General Elections Pre-Analysis Plan.” page 8. Available at

[21] EU EOM Nigeria 2015, 18.

[22] Mimpen, 8.

[23] Christina Nyström. 2000. “Kenya: The Party System from 1963-2000.” Available at

[24] M. Rutten. 1997. “The Kenyan General Elections of 1997: Implementing a New Model for International Election Observation in Africa,” in J. Abbink, and G.S.C.M. Hesseling (EDs) Election Observation and Democratization in Africa, page 302. Available at

[25] ELOG. 2013. “The Historic Vote: Elections 2013,” page 32. Available at

[27] Maiyo, page 61.

[28] Maiyo, page 61.

[29] Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group-Kenya, 14.

[30] The Carter Center, 33.

[31] European Union Election Observation Mission to Kenya. 2013. “General Elections 2013,” page 15. Available at

[32] EU EOM Kenya, 16.

[33] EU EOM Kenya, 15.

[34] ELOG, 32.

[35]The Carter Center, 33.

[36] EU EOM Kenya, 25.

[37] EU EOM Kenya, 16.

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