Kenya’s Presidential Election: A Troubling Sign for Democracy by Frances Strnad @ University of California, Los Angeles
This past fall, Kenyans voted for a new president. The election, which was supposed to be one of the most democratic elections the country has seen, was tarnished by fake news and a voting scandal.
On August 8, the country’s incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta, faced opposing party candidate Raila Odinga. The two had faced each other before in the 2013 presidential election, which was wrought with violence and conflict. Now, they would once again compete for power in a controversial election. With the increasing regional influence of Kenya and the strength of its economy, the competition for control was stronger than it had been before.
With an incentive to rule this regional superpower, both parties began aggressive attack campaigns aimed at shifting voter support. However, campaigns in Kenya are limited by strict media regulations. Following the violence that erupted after the last election, the Kenyan government implemented policies that would allow them to strictly control political campaigns. These policies even allowed the government to raid media facilities and control coverage of candidates.
These laws, viewed by many as infringing on democracy and silencing opposition, remained in place for the 2017 election. Though they were meant to prevent the spread of false information, these media laws did little to stop the spread of fake news. In fact, fake news was more influential than ever in the most recent election.
A possible culprit responsible for the proliferation of fake news is a political analyst company called Cambridge Analytica. The company previously worked on the Trump and Brexit campaigns, and was now working to help incumbent candidate Uhuru Kenyatta win the election. Cambridge Analytica is responsible for spreading much of the fake news that swamped Kenyan social media before the election.
Because many of these fake news headlines appeared on social media, they could not be regulated by Kenyan media law, which can only regulate print and broadcast media. Fake news headlines spread very quickly across Kenya, influencing the political dialogue within the country. Many of these headlines claimed to be affiliated with reputable news networks such as CNN and the New York Times. They even went so far as to falsify public opinion poll results.
Amid this atmosphere of confusion and misrepresentation came a blatant sign of election fraud. Just days before the election was scheduled to take place, the main director of election oversight, Chris Msando, was found dead. His death was thought to be a deliberate attempt to weaken election surveillance, perhaps allowing the incumbent party to skew the election results in their favor. The opposition party protested, as this would obviously make the election less fair and democratic.
Following this suspicious death, the Independent and Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), attempted to reestablish the legitimacy of the election. To do so, the IEBC implemented a new electronic voting process. This would ensure an honest count of the votes.
However, this seemingly incorruptible system proved to be tainted with political meddling as well. Election results were announced and, to no surprise, Kenyatta had won. His win seemed questionable considering the recent voting scandals and the amount of fake news he had created in order to delegitimize his opposition. General mistrust was widespread in Kenya, and these fishy election results only contributed to that feeling.
Odinga did not trust the election results either. He blamed a corrupt voting system that had been attacked by hackers as the cause for the election results. The case was taken to the Kenyan Supreme Court, which found several instances of falsified documents and a possible breach of the electronic voting system. The court ruled that a new election would take place. Odinga agreed to participate in the upcoming re-run election as long as reforms were made to the current voting system. The people of Kenya were furious at the government’s corruption as well. They took to the streets in protest and demanded reforms similar to those called for by Odinga. These reforms were quickly made in order to expedite setting the new election date and to calm the infuriated public.
Although many changes were made to both the election oversight commission and the voting process itself, Odinga was still not satisfied, so he withdrew from the re-run election. As a result, Kenyatta was uncontested in the re-run, and he automatically received the presidency.
Recently, Odinga and Kenyatta have discussed their differing views in an attempt to make peace and reunify the country. The election of 2017 continues to be a divisive event within the country. A lack of free and fair elections, as well as restriction of the press, has greatly contributed to a sense of democratic decline in the country. It has also decreased popular trust and support of the Kenyan government. As the government continues to corrupt important democratic institutions, such as elections, a decline in popular support will most likely persist. This could ultimately lead to a violent revolt and an overthrow of the government. The results of democratic erosion are troubling.
Additionally, as a regional leader, Kenya should serve as an example to other nearby countries. Instead, corruption continues to taint the country’s “democracy,” as the government implements an increasing amount of laws that suppress the voice of the people.
This not only contributes to democratic erosion within the country, but it also influences the level of democracy in other nearby countries. Unfortunately, democratic erosion is becoming a common trend in many African countries such as Zimbabwe and Namibia. This growing trend should be alarming for countries, like the US, who advocate for the spread of democracy. These democratic countries can provide necessary intervention and aid in election monitoring to countries that are struggling with democratic decline.
With the help of these foreign nations, Kenya, and other countries like it, will be able to reverse democratic erosion.
*Photo by REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya, “Officials from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission record finger prints of a man”