Boston University

Second Time Around: Kenya Tries for a Genuinely Democratic Election by Margo Blank @ Boston University

On August 8, 2017 Kenya held a Presidential election. Following concerns that the results were neither accurate nor untouched by oversight officials themselves, the Supreme Court of Kenya made waves with their decision to discard the results of the 8th election and called for another one to follow in sixty days. The reactions to this declaration are fascinating, but, more importantly, they coincide with trends and theories remarked upon by Pippa Norris in her article “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks”, Nancy Bermeo in her article “On Democratic Backsliding”, and Kenneth Roberts in a paper he published with several colleagues entitled “Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison, and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the Untied States”. Although these texts were generated using information gathered on democratic erosion in Western democracies, many of the same patterns rang true in Kenya. Below I will analyze the reactions of different key players in the Kenyan political sphere.
The primary reaction to focus on following the Supreme Court’s decision to nullify the results of the August 8th election is that of incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose win has been confiscated from him. The most obvious form that Kenyatta’s frustration with the court’s verdict has taken is name-calling the judges who sit on the bench of Kenya’s Supreme Court. This denigration is not limited to one occasion and, as a result, Kenyatta has selected a few unfriendly names for the justices, most notably “’thugs’” and “’crooks’”. Much like Donald Trump, Uhuru Kenyatta has proven himself to be shamelessly contemptuous of an institution that could both help and hurt his potential future presidency.
A more extreme and serious incident of Kenyatta clashing with the court following their groundbreaking verdict is the incumbent’s vow to fix the court if he is re-elected. This is a living, breathing example of a phenomenon that political scientist Nancy Bermeo calls “executive aggrandizement”. Executive aggrandizement happens when a leader who won a democratic election by the book decides to attack pre-existing checks and balances from his or her seat of executive power. Despite the fact that President Kenyatta has spoken at and about a fundamental government institution in an unabashedly aggressive way, the sitting president did not miss a beat in reminding the public that the new election has to be held within sixty days of the judiciary’s ruling. Not only does the law here work in the incumbent’s favor, but publicly working with the law works in his favor as well, adding another stitch to his veil of legitimacy.
If President Uhuru Kenyatta’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to scrap the results of the early August election is the most important response to look at, opposition candidate Ralia Odinga’s reaction is probably the second most important. Odinga made the wise decision to invest his time in calling the electoral commission out for their missteps instead of slinging mud at Uhuru Kenyatta, who may very well have been the one behind the commission’s “mistakes”. The list of faults involving the commission’s election-day proceedings ranges from the issuing of insecure forms used by polling places for their final vote counts to allowing for some polling stations to not send any forms or results in at all. The more malicious deeds committed on August 8th involved the breakdown of the electronic vote counting system, the August 7th murder of the official designated to oversee that system, and the attempted break-in to online voting systems.
The most direct way in which these missteps affected Odinga is that his party was unable to crosscheck ballot forms before they were counted on Election Day, part of Kenya’s voting procedure. The opposition coalition that Ralia Odinga belongs to filed what is called an electoral petition, which carried a complaint of misconduct against the election commission. Following the issuance of this petition, Odinga publicly clarified that he wants the top officials within the commission to be replaced. The opposition candidate eventually went on to say that he would only partake in a new election if, 1. Officials at the electoral commission are brought to court and, 2. If “’legal and constitutional guarantees’” are enacted to assure a fair and lawful vote. On Tuesday, October 10 Ralia Odinga announced that he would not be running for president in the new election scheduled for the end of October 2017.
On September 1, 2017 the Kenyan Supreme Court ruled to nullify the questionable results of the nation’s August 8 presidential election. The court claimed that both the processes of voting and of oversight were suspect. After reviewing evidence of broken vote counting machines that allowed for scores of votes to go without recognition and of anonymous attempts to hack into voting software, the court ruled that the electoral commission was involved with “irregular” activity. The ruling to strike the questionable results of a presidential election down was striking in and of itself.
This bold decision did not however go without consequence. Following the court’s ruling, Kenya’s Supreme Court justices received many combative threats. Kenya’s Chief Justice David Maraga said that those who are sitting on the bench “are ‘prepared to pay the ultimate price to protect the Constitution and the rule of law’”. Maraga’s words show an awareness that further democratic erosion is a very much a possibility in Kenya’s future and that if it does continue, the judiciary is a main target. In her article “On Democratic Backsliding” Nancy Bermeo validates this concern in her identification of judicial sovereignty as one of the “prime sites for democratic backsliding”.
There exists what political scientists have called “the global liberal order”, among liberal democracies around the world. This “order” is a set of expected institutions a nation must have in order to be considered a liberal democracy by other liberal democracies. Although Kenya is often characterized as a “hybrid regime”, Kenya does feel external pressures from international observers to uphold the legitimacy of its democratic systems. Following its decision to call for another (hopefully smoother and less ambiguous) election, the Kenyan Supreme Court has garnered “worldwide praise” from international observers. Hillary Clinton pointed out that this disposal of an election outcome is one of only a few in the global history of democracy. Whether or not it was the court’s intention, this decision seems to show Kenya bending to try and fit into a less-liberal but still democratic, “global order”.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry and Former Prime Minister of Senegal, Aminata Toure, collaborated on an Op-Ed for The New York Times in which they both praised the decision of Kenya’s Supreme Court and shared their expectations for the upcoming fresh election. The two leaders apprehensively hope that Kenya will be able to step into the spotlight that awaits it on the stage of global legitimacy. If all goes well with the next election, according to Toure and Kerry, Kenya will be able to take a deep and memorable bow complete with esteemed international applause at the end of this October. Whichever way this highly anticipated election ends, the epic tale of the last two months or so in Kenya qualifies as what Professor Pippa Norris calls a “period event”, a dramatic national incident that collectively impacts the population in a given country. This event is sure to affect Kenyans’ future political views and political participation, we will just have to wait and see how that affect takes shape.

1 Comment

  1. Zachary Witkin

    November 4, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    Margo, I really appreciate your article because for one, the continent of Africa is underwritten about in the western media landscape, and two because you present a narrative that counter acts many of the reductionist views about governance on the continent – views that make it seem like Africa is a wasteland for corruption and fraud. While there certainly are these things, this is not the full story of governance – look at Kenya, Botswana and Ghana.
    For my own curiosity, I was wondering more about why the opposition candidate, Ralia Odinga, ended up not running in the new election. I assume it was because the electoral commission officials weren’t brought into court and there were no legal or constitutional guarantees made? Still, I wonder why Odinga did not run again, as it seems that he did have some sway over nullifying the election. As you aptly remark, he focused his post-election energy on legitimate claims that the election commission misstepped, instead of targeting Kenyatta directly, so this would lead me to believe that his voice was important in the national dialogue, as the Supreme Court took his legitimate arguments into considerations. I feel as though if Odinga focused his attacks on Kenyatta, the national (and international) community would write it off as being a bitter loser.
    Lastly, I just wrote about how Senegal’s democracy isn’t actually that much of a model one, and I found it somewhat ironic that Kerry and Touré wrote an op-ed about their hopes for democracy in Kenya.

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