Elections should not be about selling votes to highest bidder

Ballot boxes at a polling station during the General Election in 2017. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

With the 2022 General Election on the horizon, the topic of vote-buying has taken centre-stage. At the primaries for example, the use money to win party nomination was pervasive while complaints of bribery trailed the results. Some of the contestants who lost out claimed that the opponents were openly dishing out cash handouts to voters in queues to vote in their favour.

The culture of vote-buying is not a problem exclusive to Kenya. According to Afrobarometer data between 2003 and 2014, more than a quarter of the population are engaged in vote buying. Studies show that vote buying is a common phenomenon in many developing democracies Africa.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya has witnessed some high rates of money politics and vote-buying. Distributing money to voters is a clear signal of voter bribery and this demonstrates that in Kenya, politics is increasingly becoming a preserve for those who have the financial muscle. As Charles P Sohner puts it, “money has been made to become the mothers’ milk of politics, which the political gladiators must drink to remain in business.”

The problem with this culture of vote-buying is that the electoral process is often compromised resulting in elections not being free and fair. Election has been reduced to a contest where the “votes are sold to the highest bidder.”

Gift giving, and especially cash handouts, are central to political campaigning during the election period. Many people attend political rallies in the hope of receiving money. Cash handouts convey information about electoral viability. For instance, they are used to mobilise large crowds at rallies, which sends a signal to voters about a candidates’ popularity or support base.

Chirinos in his book Campaign clientelism and the importance of numbers: An informational theory, argues that large rallies can help attract financial contributions from donors. Candidates thus buy the political participation of potential voters at public campaign events to convey information to onlookers about their electoral viability. As in other many African countries, cash handouts in Kenya seem to help politicians “look like a winner”, and therefore to attract strategic support from voters.

Electoral viability tends to attract strategic support from voters who seek to align themselves with winners.

There is no doubt that campaign finance demands can increase incentives to engage in corruption or worse, serve as corruption’s moral justification. Those who aspire to be politicians are forced to amass a lot of wealth and sometimes through dubious means so they can have money to give to the voters. In Kenya, it has become a norm for voters to demand for cash handouts from aspirants and if they don’t give them something, they are told on their faces not expect any votes.

Most Kenyans know that vote-buying violates democratic norms and vote-buying is associated with corruption in the minds of many voters. However, widespread poverty creates a demand for gifts to meet basic needs. So, candidates have to reciprocate their expectation with gifts to gain their votes.

The negative impact of money politics and vote-buying, which “recycles corrupt and depraved politicians” undermines corruption reduction efforts and it becomes a source of political corruption. The winner in the election who bought their way to public office are more likely to engage in corrupt activities by for example, taking bribes or misusing public funds to recover the expenses of vote buying and to secure enough resources for re-election.

Another negative impact of the culture of vote-buying is what Benjamin Nyblade and Steven Reed postulate as the potential relationship between cheating (vote-buying) and looting (political corruption), that “Great opportunities to loot create greater incentives to cheat and opportunities to cheat allow greater opportunities to loot.” Vote buying and political corruption, therefore, are interrelated.” Vote-buying significantly elevates campaign costs.

Therefore, the anticipated high campaign costs “to buy votes” in the next electoral cycle and the desire to recoup the financial investment in past vote buying may encourage MCAs, MPs, senators and governors to take advantage of corruption opportunities in the public offices they occupy.

Research has shown that specific and directed voter education can be highly effective in changing voters’ electoral behaviour. Even if one cannot easily convince poverty-ridden voters not to accept cash before the election, one can still persuasively argue in favour of money-free voting decisions (‘voting in conscience’).

Less-educated (in rural and slum areas) and poorer voters seem to be the centre of action for vote buying. This observation reinforces the idea that voter education bundled together with local development interventions may be a very focused and effective way to counteract vote buying.