Elections are not the Solution to Kenya’s Ills

Elections are among the most complex phenomenon in political history. Even in established western democracies with the most accurate polling and voter data systems, we struggle to comprehend why people vote the way they do. One needs to look no further than 2016 and the surprise election of Donald Trump to confirm this. The ambiguity surrounding elections also extends to questions of state building and development and non-so are those questions more relevant than to Kenya, who’s recent elections questioned its credentials as a democracy. 

When I spoke to a number of Kenyan farm workers about their voting preferences, it seemed to confirm that ethnicity not conventional western indicators such as age, gender, wage and geographical location dictated their vote. They were all male twenty somethings living next to each other and on the same wage. Yet whom they would vote for was vastly different. They all stated that they would vote for a candidate from their own tribe or whom their tribe had decided to vote for. This phenomenon is something that has been repeated nationwide in Kenya’s 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections.

In Kenya’s case this voting pattern is unhealthy as elections held this way have fed rather than extinguished ethnic conflict, providing a major obstacle to state building. Elections in 2007 precipitated ethnic conflict which resulted in the deaths of over a 1000 people. In 2017 once again a contested election between President Kenyatta from the Kikuyu tribe and Minister Odinga from the Luo tribe threatens to spill over into violence. This situation makes the future of Kenyan development uncertain.

This becomes a more complex problem when one realises that the electoral system is not the cause of producing ethnic politics. Its ‘two round’ system seeks to, incentivise the intergration of ethnic groups. Voters that wish to vote along ethnic lines with their first preference are forced to pick a candidate from another group with their second preference. Enabling cross ethnic politics to become key to winning votes. This theoretically should work in Kenya where the five major ethnic groups Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo and Kamba which contain 70% of the population do not have enough individually to secure a 50% majority. However, the system neglects to account for the possibility of alliances between ethnic groups which have become a common theme in Kenyan politics. In 2017 Odinga’s running mates come from the Luhya and Kamba group and Kenyatta’s running mate from the Kalenjin tribe.

However, one might argue that other election systems such as those masterminded by the Dayton Accords which secured a lasting peace in Bosnia, are the key to overcoming ethnic conflict. However, the situation in Bosnia has been a hollow victory and addressed the symptoms of ethnic violence rather than the cause of it. The Bosnian election system allows for a division of power evenly between the ethnic groups and creates a situation where no major initiative can be undertaken without the support of the other. This means that while there is no conflict, people continue to vote along ethnic lines. Causing more division between groups rather than fostering trust.

Perhaps then Kenya’s ethnic voting patterns and the dangers associated with it are the starkest example of how elections cannot be looked at in isolation when attempting to develop a countries politics. If the election system itself is not to blame then one must look at other aspects of Kenya’s development which must be nurtured to give people the confidence to vote for what they believe in rather than who they are.


Featured image | Political Rallies in Lorugum Village, Turkana County : Trocaire | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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