Kenyan voters are aware of their central role in the electoral process, yet they tend to limit their leadership choices. Are they ready to break away from tradition in the 2017 elections?
Fledgling democracies in Africa tend to experience cyclical radical shifts between democratic booms and the doldrums. This suggests that the democratisation process in some parts of the continent is erratic.
However, there are elements of democracy even in authoritarian states. The reverse is also true – there are elements of authoritarianism in democratic states. Proof of this can be seen in the current democratic struggles in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Africa, just to mention a few.
Kenyans refer nostalgically to the gold standard that the 2002 polls set for successive elections. This period in the country’s history signalled a new political dispensation, paving the way for major reforms that culminated in the promulgation of a new constitution in 2010.
A poll conducted by Gallup International in 2003 ranked Kenyans as the most optimistic people in the world. But this euphoria was short lived.
In 2008, Kenya rolled back its democratic gains when parts of the country descended into chaos following contested election results. Over 1,000 people died and more than half a million were displaced. In the 2013 elections the government successfully contained an impending political crisis even though the elections were marred by electoral malpractices.
The opposition claimed that in both 2007 and 2013, the election results didn’t reflect the will of the people, a situation that’s since left the country sharply polarised.
Another chance for change
Fifteen years post-2002, Kenya is on the cusp of yet another democratic revival ahead of the upcoming August 2017 elections.
Voters have a crucial role to play in the electoral process by ensuring that the leaders they elect are committed to the values of good governance. If these ideals have been compromised, the process should empower voters to elect different leaders. But voting patterns in Kenya have demonstrated this is often not the case.
Tribalism props up kleptocracy particularly when citizens claim that their communities are being victimised when their political kin are implicated in graft. Ethnic loyalties to tainted populists undermine the fight against corruption and ensure the survival of corrupt politicians.
While Kenyans have been willing to welcome change at the grassroots by rejecting some preferred party nominees at the ballot box, voters seem to have settled into a comfort zone that has in turn created a governance gap.
As a result, leaders have been able to re-engineer their political DNA to gain re-election by gullible voters. This has, in turn, led to politicians’ impressive capacity to revive their political careers.
The incumbent Jubilee government score card reports a mixed bag of results. There is a raft of significant achievements that President Uhuru Kenyatta outlined in his final state of the nation address, but these achievements notwithstanding, Kenya is in limbo with many promises unfulfilled including the creation of one million jobs for the youth and the realisation of universal healthcare.
A section of Kenyans blame politicians for this state of affairs. Others argue that the electorate must urgently move beyond ethnocentrism and engage with issues in their quest for the right leadership.
Surprisingly, the high level of political consciousness and vibrant civic engagement belies the fact that Kenyans continue to recycle the same brand of politicians. Even so, as the August 8 general election approaches, Kenyans feel that both the government and opposition offer little by way of rattling the status quo.
Kenyans are cynical about the lack of suitable candidates on both sides of the political divide as well as the risk that electoral irregularities may favour a predetermined winner.
Yet on election day, there’s a high likelihood they will once again defy logic and demonstrate the uncanny ability to turn out in droves to vote along ethnic lines. Admittedly, the dominance of select political parties can limit choice and impede democratic progress.
Are Kenyans ready to break with tradition?
All things considered, is there a possibility that Kenyans could be galvanised to cast their votes for a little known political lightweight? Possibly, but some of these political unknowns can come across as elitist, bland and anti-tribal establishment. They therefore have little appeal to most Kenyans.
Kenyans need a leader with chemistry, someone who can dance with the people, but also be in tune with their aspirations. But some of the less influential leaders abandon their supporters when they fail.
In this scenario, ethnic dynamics cut both ways. Leaders who embrace patriotic ideals are held hostage by tribal voters and compelled to abandon not only their non-tribal political base, but the principles they uphold as well. This unpredictability pushes both leaders and voters back to the safety of traditional, ethnocentric voting patterns.
In reality, even at this momentous crossroads, the prediction of a win for the usual suspects in either government or the main opposition is not far off.
The Kenyan experience demonstrates that the electoral process can be disruptive to the democratic progress. As an instrument for legitimising governance, elections have at times presented Kenya with moments of democratic breakthroughs, which have been short lived.
While there are multiple structural factors responsible for the current democratic slump, blaming politicians will not fix the politics. There needs to be a shift in mindset. Kenyans need to resist the allure and comfort of prevailing political norms.
Perhaps interrogating and re-calibrating basic individual democratic values will help reclaim the 2002 gold standard and put Kenya back on track. Until that happens, Kenyans and the politicians they elect will continue to be strange bedfellows.
Yvonne Rowa Woods is a PhD Candidate in Politics and International Studies at the University of Adelaide.