Since gaining its independence from British Colonial rule in 1963, Kenya has evolved into a stable, economically sound nation with an exemplary democratic system. Its government has adopted a constitution which establishes a multiparty parliamentary democracy and “free and fair” elections occurring every five years. However, Kenya’s two most recent presidential elections, which have tolerated and propagated populist, authoritarian candidates, signifies that the legitimacy of this claim may be diminishing.
A candidate running under the guise of democracy but with authoritarian tendencies is a key actor in the promotion of democratic erosion, according to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die. Authoritarian candidates express their anti-democratic views through rejecting procedural and liberal definitions of democracy, which can look like rejecting or not adhering to democratic institutions/rules, denying the legitimacy of opponents, tolerating violence, and/or curtailing the civil liberties of opponents, including media. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, a ruler who checks even one box of this “litmus test” is a cause of concern. The concern is that placing someone into power with even the slightest degree of an authoritarian mindset may be interested in the elimination of political institutions that are fundamental to democracy.
That said, the top candidates running for president in Kenya in both the 2007 and 2017 elections check one or more of these boxes, showing a threatening presence of authoritarian-inclined candidates in Kenya’s democratic system. In 2007, these candidates were incumbent Mwai Kibaki, Party of National Unity (PNU) and opposition Raila Odinga, Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). On December 30, 2007, Kibaki was re-elected into office after a highly contentious election that drew much controversy. Odinga and the ODM responded explosively, rejecting the election entirely and accusing Kibaki of election fraud. Kibaki denied all allegations, while Odinga rallied his opposition to challenge the new government. As Odinga spoke, Kibaki’s government interrupted his news conference and suspended all live television and radio. Widespread, ethnically charged violence and protests ensued on both sides immediately, lasting for a grueling two months and causing over 1,000 deaths. Many of these deaths and injuries were caused by the police themselves, who confronted peaceful protests with excessive force and violence.
Based off of their behaviors in this election, both Kibaki and Odinga fit some, if not all, of the criteria to be considered authoritarian candidates hiding under the guise of democracy. It is highly conceded among international election monitors that the election was indeed rigged by the PNU, as Odinga claimed, showing Kibaki’s disregard for the constitution and for free and fair elections. Additionally, Kibaki’s government not only tolerated but was responsible for committing widespread violence, another box marked on the authoritarian checklist. Finally, Kibaki abused his control over the media in order to silence his opponent and curtail his right to express a dissenting opinion.
Odinga also passed certain elements of the authoritarian litmus test. He was guilty of immediately denying the legitimacy of the election (although there was some accuracy to this claim) and of Kibaki as a ruler on ethnic grounds alone. Additionally, he tolerated and incited violence among the ODM against supporters of Kibaki and the PNU. Quoting democracy in Kenya as “unstoppable like the flow of the Nile,” Odinga claimed to uphold democratic ideals, yet displayed authoritarian tendencies throughout his candidacy.
Although unfortunate, it is somewhat unsurprising that these two candidates passed the authoritarian litmus test. This is due to the fact that populist candidates often meet the criteria of authoritarianism, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt. They define populists as follows:
Populists are antiestablishment politicians- figures who, claiming to represent the voice of “the people,” wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic or even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite.
With this definition in mind, it is clear that both candidates ran on a populist platform. This is mostly highlighted by each the anti-pluralist agendas demonstrated by the ethnically charged foundations of the PNU and the ODM. The PNU’s support base was the Kikuyu, while the ODM was heavily supported by the tribes Luo, Luhya and Kale. While both Kibaki and Odinga claimed to represent the entire nation, each candidate attacked their rival on a cultural, tribal basis and were accused of only representing their own tribe’s interests. By targeting each other’s ethnicity in the election, they incited and encouraged deep ethnic divisions between their constituencies, which fueled much of the violence in the aftermath of the election. This effectively nullified their claims to be “the people’s” president, because they both clearly had ethnic biases for and against certain groups of people. It undermined the democratic ideals of contestation and inclusiveness because it illegitimized the voice of certain groups and prioritized others. This anti-pluralist behavior is a key staple of populism, which goes hand in hand with the authoritarian inclinations of both candidates.
The conflict over the 2007 election was resolved by a deal between Kibaki and Odinga to share power. This was a relief for the community because the violence finally ceased, but problematically, these anti-democratic rulers were still given a place in the Kenyan government. According to Nancy Bermeo, this is an issue because it gives both of them a platform for “executive aggrandizement”, which involves eroding democracy from within the system by disassembling and undermining democratic institutions one by one.
Unfortunately, time has shown that the propagation of populist, authoritarian candidates did not end in 2007. In 2017, Odinga again ran against the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, and immediately rejected the election results declaring Kenyatta the winner. This time, however, the Supreme Court heard his claims and ended up nullifying the results. The Court called for a re-election, which Kenyatta’s allies in Parliament responded to by passing an amendment that would make this impossible in the future. Kenyatta won the re-election 98% of the second vote, but with only a 38% turnout. This extremely low turnout essentially refutes any claim to a mandate Kenyatta tries to claim.
If Kenya’s elections continue to proceed like this, its democracy is in danger. Legitimizing populist candidates who have no respect for democratic electoral institutions threatens the sustainability of said institutions. Therefore, democratic erosion is imminent until Kenya’s leadership shows a true respect and adherence to free and fair elections.
*Photo by Boniface Mwangi/Agence France-Presse- Getty Images
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Viking, an Imprint of Penguin Books, 2018.