Democracy is not just about winning and losing elections

Politics should never be violent. Indeed, politics should be about governance, about managing an economy and a complex democratic and bureaucratic system for the best of the people. It should be about service. However, in Kenya, politics has become purely about power. And power is not always a bad thing. In fact, democratic systems were created to give power to the people. And devolved power was supposed to be just that; empowering. Slicing up the political cake was intended to fairly diffuse tensions (and budgets!) while generating natural efficiencies at local levels. 

However, the Kenyan system for too long has done quite the opposite. Instead of a fair distribution of political power, the current political system has led to a dangerous game of zero-sum politics. In-game theory – and basic economic theory – a zero-sum game is a simple mathematical representation of a situation. In this situation, there is one winner and one loser. One total winner. And one total loser. In this system, each participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant. 

When dealing with power and patronage; winning and losing in a zero-sum manner is dangerous. As Kenyans have discovered, it is often followed by violence. 

Just look at what happens to Kenya (and Kenyans) during election years. The economy stops growing, the rhetoric becomes divisive, and families begin to leave areas fearing the tribal backlash of the results. This is because up until now, whoever won the elections, won an executive all-powerful presidency. They won all the power. And whoever lost, really lost.  

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Just look at the tension after the last elections. The feeling of loss was so great that there was even a movement for secession. The Western region, in particular, felt so disenfranchised that remaining as part of Kenya was inconceivable. Indeed, how does one move forward from total loss? 

This feeling must be removed from Kenyan politics. Democracy should not be about winning versus losing. It should not be about majority rule at the expense of the minority. When Kenyans gained our democracy we believed we had made a giant step towards protection of minorities, a fair representation of our people, whether in Western, Coast, towns or in border areas. This hasn’t happened. And this is why we now need change. 

The much-debated referendum, as part of the so-called Building Bridges Initiative, is still in the planning stages. We, however, all have a responsibility to make sure that Kenya gets it right this time. 

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It is vital that the paradigm shift is internalised across the country as we move towards restructuring our political frameworks and healing our social fabric. What does that mean? It means any new system must have a well-functioning mechanism of checks and balances so that power is neither centralised in one body, arm of government, tribe or region.

It means that as many academics, political leaders, tribal elders, religious and spiritual guides are brought on board in designing the new system. It means we must have a strong Judiciary, which is transparent. No one is above the law, not a judge, not a president, not a prime minister, and not a parliamentarian.

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There are many who claim that to instigate another referendum (which would inevitably lead to another campaign!) is a waste of taxpayer’s money, at a time where poverty is endemic and the country should be saving precious budgets. However, just hearing the phrase “post-election violence (PEV)” should be enough to quash these concerns.

How many countries around the world even have the phrase PEV in their lexicon? How many countries have to teach about PEV in schools or debate PEV on radios? The answer is very few. And the fact that Kenya still has to even discuss and warn about this petrifying phenomenon is a direct result of the zero-sum game of Kenyan politics. 

From a young age, we are taught the importance of winning. Whether in sports or spelling competitions, winning is instilled in our mentality as an evolutionary imperative. However, we must never forget that whenever there are winners, there will always be losers. And in zero-sum politics, this a dangerous game.

- The writer is Igembe North MP.

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