Politicians, not voters are the real winners in our elections

Voters casting their ballot at Bidii Primary School, Nairobi, during the 2013 general election. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

“In a properly functioning political system,” says Edward Lucas in 'Freedom’s ragged march', an essay on democracy, “elections are just one of the checks and balances that constrain greed and ambition and protect the rights of citizens.”

Put another way, was this to hold true on August 9, (and in every other election) Kenya and all other democracies would be governed better, by the best of us.

Yet in the ongoing jostling for political posts, all indications are we will not be governed by the best of us - in absolute terms. Next month’s elections won’t allow the best of Kenya to get ahead of the line. Therein lies the problem with our democracy.

A process that doesn’t winnow out the worst of the group is self-defeating and counterproductive. Kenya’s electoral process at least since 2007 has demonstrated what Mr Lucas, an editor at The Economist considers democracy’s Achilles heels; money and manipulation.

In Megachange - the World in 2050, a collection of essays by The Economist, Mr Lucas warns that “campaigning for democracy is easier than exercising it…” “In practice,” he adds, “democracy is vulnerable to the manipulation by insiders, to the corrosive power of money, to voter apathy, to the frustrating constraints of real life… and the triumph of special interests.”

His comments chime with those of Oxford University professor Paul Collier who says in his 2009 book, Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, “As with elections and reform, democracy is a force for good as long as it is more than a façade.”

His argument is that elections make democracy to work, but that the quality of elections matters too. Since 2007, as our politics has largely transformed itself into a lottery, a social welfare enterprise for those with the wherewithal to run an expensive campaign to hoodwink the public with all manner of promises.

Senate chambers. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

It is such that our democracy has been condemned to a race to the bottom. It is such that our leadership contests lack the underpinning intellectual and emotional rigour to effect change or work for the common good.

Why won’t the masses revolt at the nauseating hero-worship and the empty charades? At the least, they should be outraged by a system that is by all means captured and rigged to yield predictable outcomes and to foster corruption?

In a captured and rigged political system, the rungs have been removed from the ladder of opportunity. That is why the exploits of Linet “Toto” Chepkorir (the Bomet Women Rep nominee who beat all odds to beat her more well-resourced competitors), become an outlier.

To the political elites, the masses are numbers and votes to be traded at political auctions for power and privilege. Because they believe they own them, politicians mobilise their tribes to hate and to despise others for their beliefs and aspirations.

Kenya’s redemption is in breaking this chain of “client-patron” politics; it won’t be easy despite overwhelming evidence that it denies the country enlightened politics and most importantly, affords them a chance to scale the social ladder.

Good leadership is a possibility so desirable (so attainable) that we shouldn’t spare any effort in pursuit of it. It ought to be the natural product of political competition. The people want a responsive and effective government. They would care less if their kin were at the helm if things worked even just a little perfect.

So why do we tolerate a situation where the political elite see the people as masses to be herded into voting blocks? Isn’t it a lack of imagination to elect those who succeed in selling groupthink, fear, inertia and half-baked ideas to us?

State House, Nairobi. [File, Standard]

The answer to our fractured, unresponsive politics is less of the same things that have caused the unresponsiveness.

“If the elites cannot find a means to rule without appearing to view all issues through the lenses of corruption, ethnicity and self-interest, the danger remains that this logjam will break, and that future is clouded,” historian Charles Hornsby argues in his book, Kenya: A History Since Independence.

Mr Lucas’s conclusion though is that we need an “abundance of public-spiritedness,” because “democracy alone is not enough.”

He argues: “A confident citizenry needs the assurance… that it can throw the rascals out at the ballot box if necessary and…take to the streets in peaceful protest.” For without public-spiritedness democracy is doomed and national politics become “too dull to attract big thinkers.”

-Mr Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group