Elections are about belief, rather than law: Judge Johann Kriegler

Additional reporting by Leah Malone

“Ultimately, the test of an election is if it’s accepted by the people,” international judicial expert, and advisor to the Maldives Election Commission (EC), Johann Kriegler said in a public lecture yesterday (September 26).

“Elections are not about mathematics, elections are not about law. Elections are about people, about perceptions, about beliefs,” said the former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, who has been working as part of the UNDP’s team in Male’.

Judge Kriegler concluded his lecture, titled ‘Elections: Beauty or Beast?’, by stating that the trust of the electorate is the most important factor in running an election.

Judge Kriegler was reluctant to comment specifically on the current situation in the Maldives, where the Supreme Court and the Elections Commission (EC) have this week been locked in a consitutional battle over whether to proceed with the second round of voting.

The Jumhooree Party (JP), has been pursuing legal action to annul the poll, citing as-yet unsubstantiated claims of systemic failure on behalf of the EC.

The poll has been universally praised as being free and fair by all international observers present during the first round, as well as local NGOs and the Human Rights Commission.

Kriegler chose instead to recount some of his previous experiences in handling elections across the world – most notably in Kenya, 2007.

Following the disastrous fallout from the presidential elections that year, thousands were killed in inter-tribal violence. Judge Kriegler formed part of the post-election dispute resolution team.

The lecture included the specifics of the electoral problems, including the failings of the Election Management Body (EMB) in Kenya at the time, the Elections Commission of Kenya.

Commenting on the quality of the electoral register in Kenya during these elections, Judge Kriegler noted that it was found to be only around 70 percent accurate.

“In my experience, this was good enough,” said the judge.

Maldives election “as good as I’ve ever seen”

During a question and answer session after the lecture, Judge Kriegler was asked if he could comment on the competency of the Maldives EC.

Reasserting his reluctance to comment on ongoing matters, Kriegler stated simply that this was “as good an election as I have seen.”

“Do you want me to say more?”

When looking into discrepancies in the voting process in Kenya, Kriegler noted that a rational excuse was behind most problems, upsetting the conspiracy theorists.

More important, he argued, was the work of political and civil society groups who had been working to delegitimise the EMB for months prior to the election.

“It was a significant factor in what went wrong there.”

Remarking on the changes made between Kenya’s 2007 and 2013 elections, he noted that trust had been the key improvement.

“Kenyan elections were not particularly good this last time round, but the new EMB is trusted, number one. Number two, the judges were trusted,they fired the old lot – lock, stock, and barrel. They said you can re-apply for your job – excellent idea…The result was that…the last election was accepted by the electorate.”

Finally, Judge Kriegler compared his own country’s “messy” 1994 general election with that of Mexico’s “technically perfect” poll in the same year.

Whilst the apartheid ending vote was a success, Mexico’s election ended in months of rioting, he said.

“In South Africa, the poor, incompetent but honest elections were accepted because the people believed in it.  The people believed in it because the electoral management bodies had the support of the political parties,” Kriegler continued.

“The political parties boosted this little body that had no track record and no experience and had an impossible job. But we did the job together – that’s why it worked.”