The East African - - FRONT PAGE - BAR­BARA YOXON

Kenya joins the club of coun­tries that hold reg­u­lar polls that do not bring about change

Kenya’s tran­si­tion to a mul­ti­party democ­racy in 1991 was one of the most promis­ing cases of po­lit­i­cal change in Africa. Be­fore then, the Kenya African Na­tional Union had mo­nop­o­lised power since out­law­ing po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion in 1982.

The tran­si­tion from a sin­gle to a mul­ti­party state was a truly sig­nif­i­cant event. Kanu faced its first real chal­lenge since In­de­pen­dence in mul­ti­party pres­i­den­tial elec­tions held in 1992. But the party didn’t lose its grip on power un­til pres­i­dent Daniel arap Moi’s “anointed” suc­ces­sor lost to op­po­si­tion leader Mwai Kibaki in the 2002 elec­tion. The next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2007 were marked by po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence in which more than 1,500 peo­ple were killed fol­low­ing claims that the two major can­di­dates had ma­nip­u­lated the re­sults.

De­spite this his­tory of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, the coun­try’s new demo­cratic di­rec­tion was seem­ingly con­firmed this year when the Kenyan Supreme Court over­turned the re­sults of the Au­gust 8 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. In a his­toric rul­ing for Africa, it called for the poll to be re­peated.

Ini­tially, many praised the court for up­hold­ing democ­racy. But weeks later the same court up­held Keny­atta’s sec­ond vic­tory. A spokesman for the op­po­si­tion coali­tion as­serted that mem­bers of the Supreme Court had been in­tim­i­dated.

The turn of events in favour of Pres­i­dent Keny­atta is not sur­pris­ing. It sug­gests that the process of free elec­tions was never in­tended to help the coun­try democra­tise. This mir­rors events in other seem­ingly tran­si­tion­ing coun­tries such as Zim­babwe or Sene­gal.

What is more, the process of open­ing up the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem could – in and of it­self – never have been ex­pected to de­liver democ­racy. This was the case in Ukraine, where shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, elec­tions were ex­pected to bring about a process of democrati­sa­tion sim­i­lar to Poland’s in 1989. But democ­racy never ar­rived in the Ukraine. In­stead, the coun­try plunged deeper into au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. In Kenya’s case, elec­tions have been used to bol­ster the le­git­i­macy of an au­to­cratic regime. While Kenya holds free and reg­u­lar elec­tions, po­lit­i­cal elites reg­u­larly in­tim­i­date po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion as well as jour­nal­ists and the ju­di­ciary. This ef­fec­tively skews the re­sults of each elec­tion in favour of the govern­ment.

Re­cent re­search on tran­si­tion­ing coun­tries looks at how they have held reg­u­lar mul­ti­party elec­tions at the na­tional level, yet vi­o­lated min­i­mum demo­cratic stan­dards.

The re­search sug­gests that since the end of the Cold War, coun­tries like Kenya, Tur­key, Ukraine and Zim­babwe have evolved the most com­mon form of non-demo­cratic rule in the world. As mul­ti­party states, they have com­bined el­e­ments of both democ­racy and au­toc­racy. Their rulers have learnt to use free mul­ti­party elec­tions in their favour.

Kenya’s story is a re­minder that au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes – even those that look like democ­ra­cies – are un­likely to go away any­time soon.

But most schol­ars agree that to com­plete their tran­si­tion coun­tries like Kenya have to meet a num­ber of cri­te­ria. These in­clude free, fair, and com­pet­i­tive elec­tions, full adult suf­frage, freedom of the press, speech and as­so­ci­a­tion, and an ex­ec­u­tive free from ex­ter­nal in­flu­ence.

The last point in­di­cates that no mil­i­tary, re­li­gious or civil­ian or­gan­i­sa­tion in the coun­try can over­ride the de­ci­sions of a fairly elected ex­ec­u­tive. While Kenya cer­tainly meets many of the cri­te­ria, it strug­gles to meet two in par­tic­u­lar.

The first is fair elec­tions. The coun­try has held reg­u­lar free elec­tions since 1991 and it al­lows a num­ber of po­lit­i­cal par­ties to take part. But the elec­tions can­not be de­scribed as hav­ing been fair.

A re­cent Amnesty In­ter­na­tional report has con­demned Kenya for rou­tinely tar­get­ing the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion in an ef­fort to dis­suade them from chal­leng­ing the govern­ment. This in­cludes ar­bi­trary ar­rests and even killings by the po­lice in the 2017 elec­tion. This un­even play­ing field can re­sult in un­fair elec­tions.

The sec­ond cri­te­rion that Kenya fails on is freedom of the press, speech and as­so­ci­a­tion. For a coun­try to be demo­cratic, it should al­low ba­sic po­lit­i­cal free­doms for its cit­i­zens and in­sti­tu­tions. This has not been the case in Kenya. For ex­am­ple, the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists re­cently re­ported that jour­nal­ists were rou­tinely ha­rassed and in­tim­i­dated by the po­lice and po­lit­i­cal party sup­port­ers in the past elec­tions.

Sim­i­larly, the body­guard of one of the judges was shot a day be­fore the court’s sched­uled rul­ing on a mo­tion to de­lay the re­peat vote.

As a re­sult of these se­ri­ous short­com­ings, Kenya can­not be viewed as a de­moc- racy. The play­ing field re­mains un­even de­spite major con­sti­tu­tional changes to guar­an­tee an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary and to es­tab­lish a sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers in the govern­ment. There have been clear ex­am­ples – Poland in 1989 and South Africa in 1994 – of where elec­tions helped many coun­tries suc­cess­fully tran­si­tion. But elec­tions, even free and com­pet­i­tive, don’t al­ways mean that the coun­try is more demo­cratic. There have been in­stances when they have been used to help rul­ing politi­cians stay in power as hap­pened in Ukraine, Tur­key and Sin­ga­pore.

Kenya’s rul­ing elite too has learnt to use elec­tions to its ad­van­tage. In­stead of weak­en­ing the elite’s grip on power, the elec­tions seem to ac­tu­ally make them stronger. Given this sit­u­a­tion, and re­cent events, it is un­clear whether Kenya will ever com­plete its tran­si­tion to democ­racy.

Bar­bara Yoxon is an as­so­ciate lec­turer in pol­i­tics at the Uni­ver­sity of York in the UK Copy­right: The Con­ver­sa­tion

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Nyaga

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