Election season: Taking stock

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By Prof. John Harbeson

Elections are a time for taking stock on many levels. Kenya’s 2017 will enable voters to decide on representatives in each of six offices: the Presidency, Senate, and National Assembly, Woman Representative seats at the National level, governors and Members of County Assemblies at the county level. It has been a time for Kenya’s political parties to nominate candidates for all these seats. But elections are also stress test for a country’s democratic political institutions. The question is, how resilient and durable do a country’s democratic institutions appear to be as election season approaches?

The question of the strength of a country’s democratic institutions as they are tested in competitive multiparty elections, at the same time, is a test of the reliability and validity of the measurement of these institutions by an evolving science of democratic institutional measurement. The question is to what extent the assessed quality of democratic institutions correlates positively with their strength, which is put to the test by contentious elections.  One would hope that there would be a high positive correlation.

In 2012, however, Mali’s democratic institutions, which had consistently received high marks from the well-respected Freedom House, proved to be fatally weak and prone to collapse under pressure in serious civil conflict, tested not by an election but by rebel insurgencies. Mali’s democratic institutions had received high marks notwithstanding failure to implement an agreement to accommodate its northern pastoralist communities. The lesson has been that perceived quality democratic institutions may not correlate well with strength under stress, because sources of institutional weakness are not adequately taken into account in those assessments.  Indeed, the Fund for Peace, in its 2012 assessment of state fragility, ranked Mali only the 79th most fragile state of 175 worldwide, i.e., a state at risk but not at the highest risk, a condition that the Freedom House rankings did not appear to take into account.

The issue of the strength of relatively new democratic institutions in times of stress becomes more complicated when assessments of a country’s democratic institutions are more mixed as they have been consistently for Kenya over the past several years, while Kenya ranked as the 20th most fragile state in the 2016 Fund for Peace ranks, a state at much higher risk than was Mali in 2012.  Despite a mixed record on overall democratic performance, Kenya weathered its 2013 elections fairly well.  So, there is clearly no necessarily strong correlation between the weakness of democratic institutions and poor electoral performance any more than there is between strong institutions and resilience in the face of political stress.  At a minimum, better measures of what permits democratic institutions to exhibit resilience under stress are needed.

That said, it still is plausible, even if we can’t pinpoint the reasons reliably, that weaker democratic institutions could well be more vulnerable to serious disarray in the face of electoral or other sources unusual political stress. Looking at the quantitative indicators for Kenya in the protocols of the major measuring organisations, there appear more discouraging than encouraging signs.

On the downside, in addition to the Fund for Peace estimate of the Kenya state’s fragility, in the same vein, the World Bank, which estimates the quality of governance among almost all countries, has found that relative to other countries, Kenya has become less stable in the years since the passage of the 2010 Constitution.  It found a decline in stability from its position in the 15th percentile in 2010 to the 9th percentile in 2015, notwithstanding improvements as well as declines in the quality of governance.

The Bank estimated an uptick in 2010 to the 19th percentile, still a very low score, in control of corruption, which has since receded to the 14th percentile in 2015 even though the survey attests significant improvement in observance of the rule of law from the 17th percentile in 2010 to the 37th percentile in 2015.  The 2010 Constitution notwithstanding, Freedom House has found a 10 per cent decline in observance of basic rights, especially in freedom of expression, from 2010 through 2017.

On the upside, the Mo Ibrahim Index, centred only on African countries, has found about a 10% improvement by Kenya on each of its overall categories: safety and the rule of law, participation and rights, sustainable economic opportunity and human development.  The Mo Ibrahim index, alone among the major ones, broadens its focus from specifically political indicators to include important measures of economic and social progress.

In short, the numbers have continued to be worrisome for Kenya, although they are based upon a still fledgling, inexact science, although there is still some evidence of progress at least in relationship to other African countries. The resilience of new democratic institutions to political stress, however, remains the critical elusive variable.

Writer is professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies

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