The Republic of Kenya has a long and contentious past, and since it became independent from Great Britain in 1963 it has struggled to become a free and fair democracy. Freedom House, an organization which acquires and analyzes information about democracy, human rights, and political freedom, considers Kenya to be “partly free” today. This is an estimation based off of many ongoing struggles involving corruption, ethnic rivalries, and police brutality which demonstrate some of the most unsettling ways in which Kenya’s democracy is struggling today. As an article in the Washington Post stated, “the country remains sharply divided along ethnic lines, with little progress in reconciling the post-election violence of 2007 and 2008.” This references some of the previous controversy Kenya has struggled with in regard to its elections. However, there have also been a number of recent events which have have symbolized even more direct ways in which elections represent a myriad of other issues in Kenya which may represent a breaking point for where it can even be considered a democracy anyone. The central and essential core of any democracy is rule for the people by the people, and this latest election in Kenya signals significant problems in this regard which illuminate the clearest and most disturbing sign of democratic erosion in Kenya.
Kenya’s current constitution was adopted in 2010, and states the president and deputy president are directly elected by majority vote to serve up to two five year terms. Kenya now has a multi-party system, and citizens are allowed to create their own political parties to serve certain regional, ideological, or ethnic interests, but continuous politicization in government serves as a major barrier for descriptive representation of many segments of Kenya’s diverse population. Tensions among different segments of Kenya’s population is an ongoing problem this latest election has only exacerbated in an incredibly dangerous way.
The government has also been embroiled in countless corruption scandals, significantly lowering any confidence in making meaningful change happen. However this seemed set to change following the latest 2017 presidential election, when Raila Odinga challenged the results that stated incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta had been reelected with fifty-four percent of the vote in the Supreme Court. This was mainly on the basis of election fraud, which although never proven led to a large amount of embarrassment among those in the international community who had praised Kenya’s practices. It was revealed that “four of the six justices found that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) did not conduct the presidential election in a manner consistent with law, and that it committed “irregularities and illegalities.” This ruling on the court case led to the results being annulled and a new round of elections ordered. Unfortunately the controversial nature of this second election led to widespread beliefs elections are becoming less “free and fair,” rather than more so.
By most accounts Kenya’s previous elections were widely considered by international assessors to be far from free and fair, and controversies over the latest election in 2017 were overwhelmingly viewed internationally as a positive step towards better run elections, especially when President Kenyatta stated he would honor the Supreme Court’s decision. These latest developments following the election have symbolized “a stunning about-face in a country praised mere months ago as a shining example of democracy, when the Supreme Court overturned a presidential election, and the winner, President Uhuru Kenyatta, agreed to abide by the ruling.” The Supreme Court ruling seemed to undermine that victory under the law, as the government continues to defy a court order to allow TV stations to remain on the air. This recent attack on free press, as well as the government’s refusal to follow the law, suggests Kenya’s democracy is moving in a very concerning direction. These fears about government interference in the media, and the upheld election results has raised new concerns about how the executive power seems to be overpowering the judiciary, leading to further panic among Kenyans as well as the international community.
According to an article by Mark Bellamy and Johnnie Carson, “as was the case during the horrendous post-election violence of 2007, Kenya today needs outside assistance help it alter course. Such help is unlikely to materialise unless the US uses its unique relationship with Kenya to catalyse an international response.” The outright refusal of Kenyatta and the rest of the government to comply with court orders and escalating frustrations and protests among Kenyans following this latest election suggest Kenya is headed on a very dangerous trajectory and are clearly experiencing democratic erosion. Elections are an incredibly important aspect of any democracy is it is the main opportunity for citizens to make their voices heard. The allegations of fraud and second round of elections undoubtedly frustrated Kenyans and undermined their democracy in a way that is sure to have a lasting and resounding impact.
Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP, Creative Commons Zero license