Friday, June 30, 2017

Why Kenyans Are Sick Of Voting

Kenya is today truly in the grip of election fever. Political temperatures are rising, the economy is feeling lethargic, shenanigans at the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission are causing severe headaches and hateful political speeches are inducing nausea.

Why do we endure this? Every five years, we are harangued into registering for the vote and into casting our ballots on voting day. Many commentators go so far as to declare your vote to be your voice and that a failure to vote is an abdication of the right to complain about government policy. In fact, President Kenyatta was, earlier in his term, fond of telling opposition supporters to stop complaining about his government and to wait for elections where they could do something about it. 

“You had your chance to lead. Now it’s our turn,” his deputy, William Ruto, said in response to sustained criticism from opposition leader, Raila Odinga. “Let us do our jobs. Help us, but give us room to do what we were elected to do. In a few years there’ll be another election.” In this formulation, there is the idea that in order to “do what it was elected to do” the government must be spared criticism.

It is all hogwash. Voting is just one of the many mechanisms democracy should afford the people to partake in governance. In fact, it is not the casting of a ballot once every five years that is the crucial characteristic of democracy; many authoritarian systems feature elections. Rather, it is popular participation in everyday governance -in enforcing accountability and influencing the decisions government makes in between elections- that marks a system out as a democracy.

Elections only gain life and death importance when all other paths to accountability and participation are blocked. And given the way their rules have been fixed, electoral contests have become more about legitimizing elite ambitions rather than solving the people’s problems. The manifestos that have been unveiled this week illustrate this, focused as they are on highfalutin visions rather than fixing mundane, everyday problems.

This sets us up for a horrible cycle. Because there is no accountability and minimal participation of the voting public in governance after the election, politicians will promise anything knowing they do not need to deliver it. Voters, also knowing this, will prioritize what they can get during campaigns since there is no way of guaranteeing that you will get anything after. Thus voter bribery and improbable manifesto promises.

It also incentivizes corruption. Literally. Kenyan elections have become the most expensive in he world, judged on an expenditure-per-voter basis, largely because they are avenues of extraction by a thuggish elite. 

For the candidates, there are incentives to spend huge amounts of money getting elected because it opens the gates to a world of looting and self-enrichment through corrupt contracting. And the more one can steal, the more largess one has to bribe the public at the next election, and so on.

Regardless of the nature of the system, there is little recognition of the fact that not voting remains a legitimate choice. One may either not wish to legitimize the outcome of an obviously flawed process or may prefer to participate in other ways. Just as voting should not be construed as the end of democratic participation, not voting should not be seen as surrendering all rights to other forms of democratic participation including complaining about the way leaders elected by others govern.

Contrary to the prevailing notions, Kenyan history shows us that change does not come via the vote. It was not standing in line that forced the dictatorial regime of Daniel Arap Moi to loosen the reins on society. Rather, it was demands for accountability by the masses using other equally legitimate avenues of democratic participation such as the street, organized civil society and the media that ended the single-party state, reformed the electoral system and paved the way to regime change. 

Those old enough will recall that in the euphoria following the election of Mwai Kibaki, the church, media and civil society eased the pressure for reform thinking we now had allies in power. In short order, many of the bad habits of the Nyayo era resurfaced. We quickly went from citizens arresting policemen in the streets for demanding bribes to Kibaki sending the GSU into Bomas to stop the constitutional reform talks and to a proliferation of corruption scandals. The important lesson here is not that voting is unimportant, but rather that it is not the only, or even, the most effective form of citizen participation. The election of Kibaki did not bring democracy but rather was a product of the democratic space created by citizens prior to the vote.

Instead of a ballot box fetish, our focus should be on participation in between elections. We should examine the many ways our system makes it difficult for ordinary people to participate in lawmaking or express their opinions and easy for the government to ignore them when they do. We should be concerned when peaceful protesters are beaten down, or online activism is disparaged and when MPs, under the pretense of giving effect to the constitutional right of recall, pass a law that makes it well-nigh impossible for their constituents to recall them.

In what is perhaps the most memorable phrase in his famous address at Gettysburg in the aftermath of the US Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. A democratic system is not about replacing the people with rulers. But rather about enabling citizens to participate in their own governance and always keeping government accountable to them.

If this were the case in Kenya, then elections would not make us sick.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

How To Spot Empty Campaign Promises

In the coming days, especially as we approach August, we will be inundated with politicians each seeking our endorsement and more importantly our vote. We will be encouraged, harangued and shamed into exercising our democratic right to wake up incredibly early, endure frustratingly long queues in order to mark a bunch of ballots and toss them into a bin.

But what exactly will we be voting for? What should we be looking for in this campaign period? Ideally it should be a choice between competing ideas about how Kenya should be run. However, our politics has not exactly been a crucible where clear thought is forged and many times it is reduced to something of a piñata breaking challenge as we blindly strike out hoping to break loose some promises of “goodies” to come.

To try and infuse some sanity into this charade, and to separate sophistry from sophistication, here’s a short list of six things we should remember when it comes to whacking that piñata.

Plans trump promises and manifestos are not plans
They are little more than public declarations of policies and aims. A manifesto may say -to pick a completely random example- that a political coalition will deliver laptops to every primary school within 100 days of candidates taking office. This is not a plan. A plan would say how said laptops would be procured, how much they would cost, where the money would come from, etc. Basically, a plan would prove that the candidate and his team have thought through what’s in their manifesto.

There are no silver bullets
Anyone who tells you they will pay for their election promises by stopping corruption or recovering previously stolen loot, and cannot tell you how they will stop said corruption or recover said stolen loot, or even how much they expect to raise by stopping corruption of recovering stolen loot within a specific time frame, does not have a plan. Ditto for tales about paying with money to be raised by  cancelling waivers of coffee debts and other similarly fanciful and vague policy notions. Demand specifics. Take anything they tell you with a healthy pinch of salt.

Integrity is not enough 
Similarly, anyone who tells you to vote for them simply because they have integrity but have no concrete plan for delivering on their visions is hoodwinking you. Integrity is important, but no substitute for thinking. Also remember the lessons of the 2002 election when we voted in the cream of civil society and religious leaders -people with proven records of integrity. It did not take long for them to turn. Integrity does not come with a guarantee.

Everybody has a record we can interrogate
Many Kenyan politicians like to pretend that they represent a clean break for the past. In doing so, they also like to disavow their own past and any responsibility for it. Do not be cheated that just because some candidates have never been MCAs or Senators or Governors or MPs or Presidents, they get a free pass. All their prior actions and statements in previous capacities, whether in public or private spheres, are relevant to assessing their suitability for the offices they are vying for.

The election is not just about what candidates want to do
Elected politicians like to think of themselves as “leaders”, but they are really representatives whose job is not to lord it over you but rather to speak on your behalf. Remember Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who during the French Revolution is said to have declared: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." Elections should be about what you want and what matters to you. So, what issues would you like to see the government address? How do you want your taxes put to work? What do you see as priorities for the next administration? Look for candidates who reflect that and who can give you solid plans not wooly promises.

It does not end on election day
There will be much hype about the need to vote and some will even suggest that if you do not vote, you should not complain. Pay them no heed. Voting is just one, and not even the most important, aspect of participation in a democracy. Elections matter most to politicians since that how they get their jobs and access power. What should matter most to the electorate is what the politicians do with that power in the period in-between elections. Your continued participation after the elections, the ability to hold winners to account as well as contribute to and shape the decisions that affect your life and the lives of your family -this is the stuff of democracy. Not merely standing in line and casting a ballot at election time. So, beware any candidate who has at some point suggested that if you were unhappy with the way office-holders behaved or with the policies they implemented, you must wait for the next elections to do anything about it.