For elite voting

Kenya can either denounce the liberalism of the Constitution and resign herself to an autocracy that will push development first, or guarantee acceptable, legitimate and functional government through limiting universal suffrage


By Shadrack Muyesu

Acceptability and legitimacy or functionality and adaptability?
Opinion remains divided as to what ideals mirror the perfect system of government. If it is the former, then this article must agree that liberal democracy is indeed the best system of government and, therefore, like Fukuyama (1992), the true end of history. But if the latter be an equally important goal, liberal democracy must be deemed an incomplete process.

The Constitution of Kenya, 2010, effectively transformed Kenya into a liberal democracy (I have always insisted that this is just on paper). In its Preamble and the principles of good governance, the Constitution is clear that as well as legitimacy and acceptability, functionality remains an equally important goal of our democracy. Where deliberation is mandatory, to refuse to read an intellectual qualification into the right to vote is to create a contradiction in the Constitution. Similarly, to deny the common man his political rights, on the excuse of intellectual incompetence, is to elevate acceptability, equality and non-discrimination above good governance. Balance must be found.

It’s noteworthy that the pioneers of democracy and critics alike had identified indifference to intellectual incompetence as a major weakness of democratic systems (Tocqueville, Mill et al); it is on the cusp of this dissatisfaction that deliberative and liberal democracy arose. But where it was supposed to be a solution, liberal democracy in emergent states instead coincided with a period of economic stagnation and a leadership crisis, which, though some experts attributed to the misapplication of liberal democracy (Collier, 2007 & Schumpeter, 1942) others accepted its impotence in societies that were predominantly rural, multi-layered and cultural (Fukuyama, S. Mukand, D. Rodrik et al).

On their assessment, illiteracy thrived where these characteristics multiplied, intoxicating otherwise noble public participation. Unfortunately, while the former school was unwilling to restrict a universal suffrage it so revered, the sceptics failed to provide a viable alternative: and so liberal democracy marches on.

Far from nationalistic, voters are rational and “hardwired” with selfish preferences (Fish, 2008). When faced with two or more alternatives, selfish preferences push them to make choices that best serve their individual interests (utility maximisation). Rationality, the tendency to make decisions based on “passion”, informed, shaped and flamed by phenomena such as “personality cult” religion, ignorance and desperation (Elster, 2000), poses a hindrance to effective governance in liberal democracies world over – negative effects vary with jurisdiction. The more socio-economically and culturally stratified a society is, the more difficult it will be to entrench liberal democracy.

Elections in multiple ethnicities have been dismissed as nothing beyond a periodic ethnic census – and Kenya is a good example. A celebrated event, the advent of multi party democracy only multiplied ethnicity as the emerging parties immediately profiled themselves according to regions. The emergence of coalitions did little to dismantle ethnic resolve, as coalition affiliates would retain their historical support bases. Indeed, whenever coalition leaders fell out, they would retreat to their tribal conclaves, their supporters in tow.

Code of conduct

The Constitution attempted to cure this malady by conscripting a thorough code of conduct for political associations. Among others, it contemplated a Chapter 6 on Leadership and Integrity, which enumerated the responsibilities of leadership, its principles and the mechanisms of supervising an acceptable code of conduct. Parties had to rid themselves of tribal notions, inspire public confidence as well as conduct their business in a manner consistent with the purposes and objects of the Constitution. The Political Parties Act, 2011, went further and institutionalised coalitions and mergers if only to check the common fallouts, increase parties’ reach to previously inaccessible areas and ideologise parties. But, as the 2013 general election results demonstrated, parties remain as tribal as ever.

A fact that many have been reluctant to accept is that the solutions offered by law are, at best, a misprescription that is way off the real problem – the conscience of the voter, his person and his environment. The laws mentioned focus on the conduct of aspiring State officers, with minimum supervision of the electorate. On the principles and responsibilities, neither the Constitution nor the Political Parties Act offers a modicum of how this will be achieved. While the functional illiteracy of the electorate has been identified as a big problem of the system, experts have resisted the urge to read an intellectual qualification into the right to vote, proposing instead an adherence to the existing systems.

The need for a homemade government system has never been clearer than, as Ashutosh Varshney argued in Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflict:

“…Ethnic pluralism, it is argued, requires political institutions distinct from those that are suitable for ethnically undivided societies. A mechanical transfer of institutions forms regardless of whether a society is marked by deep ethnic divisions that can cause ethnic violence. The foundations of these arguments go way back to John Stuart Mill in the 19th Century. Mill had claimed that common loyalty to a political centre was a precondition for a democracy to function. A multi-ethnic society was likely to have many loyalties, not one. Only under the tutelage of a more politically advanced community can order be maintained and ethnic violence avoided. Tutelage was necessary until a civic consciousness towards a political centre, not to an ethnic group emerged…”

If he is right, then Kenya has 42 different loyalties (also Anderson, 1983). A difficult task of assembling these loyalties under a political task is made impossible by socio-economic and cultural underdevelopment.

The goal of every voter is their economic satisfaction, but it is a society’s literacy level and its economic development that determine his choice reaction (Kaimenyi, Gutierrez et al). Developed societies are generally more urbanised, as people are out to take advantage of the city’s economies of scale, its consumer culture, diversity and the blue-collar engagements it has to offer. A limited space for personal expansion vis-a-vis the high cost of living drives them towards private commercial practice.

Appreciating the importance of liberalisation and market diversification, they tend to vote for persons who promise the sustained stability of their business, ethnicity notwithstanding. Predominantly subsistence farmers, primitive (rural, stratified and illiterate) societies maintain a sentimental attachment towards land. It is the desire to protect this land that binds them to tribal alliances. Similarly, being shortsighted, they are likelier to fall prey to inducements such as bribes (Lipton, 1977).

One of two choices

As attractive as liberal democracy may be, it cannot be fast-tracked. Indeed, political morality cannot be coerced through legislation. It is the result of a gradual social and economic maturity. Interpreting Seymour Lipset, though education begets civic and economic consciousness it is urbanisation that solidifies it. A liberal democratic environment naturally results, as it is within this environment that ideas are perpetuated and the society self sustains. The societal and political unrest seen in Kenya today is the result of a defiance of this sequence. Not only are Kenya’s subsistence farmers, the country is also rural and deeply stratified.

Recourse can only be found in the adoption of one of two alternatives. Kenya can either denounce the liberalism of the Constitution, and resign herself to an autocracy that will push development first, or guarantee acceptable, legitimate and functional government through limiting universal suffrage.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here