Kenya’s peaceful election doesn’t make it a healthy democracy

Kenya’s peaceful election doesn’t make it a healthy democracy

Earlier this month, Kenya held what analysts have described as perhaps the single most significant sub-Saharan electoral contest in 2013. It was the country’s first general election since the widespread post-electoral violence of 2007-2008, which claimed more than 1,200 lives, displaced 350,000 people, and obliterated more than half of the country’s GDP in the blink of an eye.

So did the election pass the test? The answer depends on how one looks at the question.

If the measure of success is that the elections transpired peacefully, then they have been a major achievement. The most important thing to have happened is that nothing has happened (at least so far) — and for that Kenyans deserve credit. Since the days of 2007/2008, which brought Kenya to the brink (as Daudi Were of Ushahidi put it at an event held by my organization in London in March), there have been active efforts from all corners of Kenyan society, from government officials and political and religious leaders to political parties, civil society organizations, and young activists, to embrace a discourse of peace and reject violence. Many international partners, from the European Union and the United Nations, to the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, have also supported Kenya’s efforts to promote conflict mitigation and early warning systems. A run-off election was averted by the narrowest of margins, but electoral results are being contested through the courts and not through violence in the streets. These are all positive — and meaningful — steps, even if the elections were far from perfect and marred by irregularities and incompetence.

But if the benchmark is what the elections say about the overall health of democracy in Kenya, then their appraisal is more sobering. Peaceful elections on their own do not make a democracy, and the root causes of what led to violence in 2007/2008 in the first place remain unaddressed. It is certainly the case that, in the intervening years, formal institutions have been overhauled and reforms implemented, a new constitution has been approved, and transitional justice mechanisms have been pursued. But the underlying dynamics of how power is contested and distributed have not changed. The salience and politicisation of ethnicity remains a defining characteristic of the Kenyan political system, even if at the local level voters have shown that they are willing not to vote along ethnic lines. The winner-takes-all nature of the system generates dynamics that reinforce fault lines of conflict along ethnic and regional divides and make it extremely hard for political leaders to look beyond their narrow self-interest (or who gets to "eat") and focus on the broader national interest. But unless these kinds of perverse incentives are addressed at their core, the patterns of exclusion and patronage they engender will continue to be latent sources of violence.  

The electoral process has also highlighted the precarious balance between different but competing objectives — and the resulting dilemmas. For instance, as discussed at the ODI event, the peace narrative may have been essential to prevent a return to violence, but it has also limited the space for more critical reflections and assessments of the electoral process within Kenya. That may well be a price worth paying — but there are concerns that it has led to self-censorship and that it has prevented the airing of legitimate grievances, while the narrative to maintain peace at all costs may have helped to strengthen the hand of power-holders.

And then there is the matter of Uhuru Kenyatta, who won the elections even as he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for fomenting violence in the last presidential elections. As some analysts have suggested, ICC proceedings may have unwittingly strengthened Kenyatta’s position at home and helped him secure the election in reaction to what is perceived as unwelcome Western interference. But there can be no doubt: the fight against impunity within Kenya has suffered a serious setback.

Overall, there is room to interpret the Kenyan elections with some optimism, but there are also real grounds for concern. Whether one sees the glass as half full or half empty, one thing is clear. This is no time to be complacent. The fate of Kenyan democracy hangs in the balance.

Alina Rocha Menocal is a Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in London, UK.