University of California, Los Angeles

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”

3 Comments

  1. HELOISE RACHEL CECILE THERESE HAKIMI-LE GRAND

    March 14, 2018 at 7:17 pm

    I was extremely interested in this post as I did not know much about these elections.
    My first remark concerns the last few sentences of the post. While I think that the author’s idea to have other countries monitor the elections, I believe that it would lead to problems such as:
    -how to chose which countries would help Kenya keep fair elections? And how do we prevent countries who have interests in the results from getting involved? Going off the same idea, how do we know if a country has interests in who gets elected?
    -wouldn’t the Kenyan people feel oppressed and belittled by a (probably) richer and more powerful country overseeing their elections?
    I really appreciated the author’s analysis of the strengthening of the economy leading to a bloodier battle for power. Indeed we tend to believe that a country that’s doing great economically will be more democratic and less likely to have unfair elections.
    Additionally, polls (https://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/fakenews.pdf) have shown that contrary to popular belief, fake news have had little effect on the 2016 US election, but it seems to have had an effect in Kenya. Why is that?
    I would also love the understand what incentives did Cambridge Analytics have to play such a big role in fake news producing in Kenya.
    Lastly, I linked Odinga’s drop of the second race to the How Democracies Die reading. Indeed, this reading introduces the idea that politicians, not the people, are democracy’s gatekeepers. Thus, I feel like Odinga did not play his role and involuntarily led to Kenyatta being reelected. However, I’m not sure his staying in the race would have changed the outcome of the election.

  2. DENNIS RECHELLE ALYSE

    March 14, 2018 at 8:21 pm

    I think its very interesting that this political analytic company also worked with the Trump and Brexit campaigns, all of this at the cost of citizens. It has undermined democracy and created an environment infiltrated with lies and misconceptions. As the age of social media progresses especially in third world countries such as Nigeria, the spread of fake news will contribute to a lot of damage. As technology becomes more and more accessible to the population it will further allow the spread of fake news and encounter people who not only don’t have access to these forms of communication but the illiterate who would rely on information from their surroundings. The media has a major influence on how we view things and our reactions. Another thing that is worrisome is the faking of polls and faking credible sources such as CNN and the New York Times. It makes you question if there is a governing body that controls political analytic companys such as Cambridge Analytica. The success that Cambridge has had in getting these administration into office will only increase the competitiveness and lower the morality standard of politics. Competition will also be increased in the analytical sector as more companies will emerge and try to out do the next in slander. Controlling the media is also controlling the outcome and skewing peoples opinions which has proven to lead to people becoming radicalized.

  3. NAM SIK YOO

    March 15, 2018 at 1:38 am

    After reading your post, I am able to clearly understand the reasons for why democracy may seem to be on the decline in Kenya. Having free and fair elections is one of the main aspects of a democratic nation. But merely having elections in a country does not automatically mean that the country is democratic, and I believe you were able to clearly point that out with what took place during the 2017 presidential election in Kenya. I believe that the use of media to manipulate the citizens of one’s country by spreading constantly fake news before election day is definitely not a democratic way of garnering public support. One additional thing that I believe you could have added in this post to bolster your argument was an example or two of the “fake news” that was being spread on social media. By comparing the “fake news” to the “actual news,” more people would have a greater sense of why there may be corruption in the past Kenyan presidential election. In addition, I wholeheartedly agree with the final point you made about Kenya having to show the example of what a true democratic nation is to its neighboring countries in Africa. If the leaders of Kenya take actions to reverse democratic decline in the country, that not only benefits the people of that country alone, but it has the potential to benefit the citizens of neighboring countries since the governments of those neighboring countries can learn from and apply those practices in their own countries. Hence, I believe Kenya must find ways to reform its election system soon before the next election, and this can be done, as you mentioned, through cooperation with consolidated democracies throughout the world.

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