Democracy is about representation and public participation, not just voting for Raila or Ruto

For many Kenyans, our ability to vote or not has seemingly become the single yardstick of whether a country is democratic or not.

But a vote alone won’t give a citizen the ability to learn more, to have greater agency or to think more critically about the things that affect their lives. A vote alone won’t give a citizen the ability to go out and ask for the change they wish to see to make their lives better. And a vote alone won’t give people the agency and ability to shape their futures, rather than being limited to making a judgement about their past. For these reasons, we need to look beyond the ballot box — understanding elections and electoral democracy as one part of a wider, more complex system of democracy.

Citizens need to be equipped to have a voice in shaping their communities, their environment, and the decisions that affect their everyday lives. From infrastructure, the cost of living, schools, medical services, governance, garbage collection to electrical power and the environment.

One may also ask; how do the views of citizens in a democracy shape government policy? According to one understanding, citizens have preferences and they select representatives with similar views to carry out their wishes.

After this upward transmission of preferences, the only role of the voter is to see that these preferences are faithfully translated into policy, while wielding the awesome power of retrospective sanction to keep wayward representatives in line.

However, an alternative theoretical approach known as deliberative democracy emphasises the critical role of public debate and deliberation in moderating and shaping individual preferences, as well as the role of institutional debate within parliaments and legislatures. Far from taking preferences as exogenous factors, deliberative democracy views the shaping of individual preferences through discussion as a vital component of the democratic process.

If our preferences are formed in part by communicating with each other in democratic discourse, then political participation is absolutely vital, and cannot stop at voting but must encompass a robust and ongoing political conversation.

Other research shows that conversations across party lines can reduce or eliminate the power of elites to frame issues to the benefit of their own interests. The tendency of like-minded groups to polarise can also be dramatically reduced by structured deliberation, and deliberating in a structured setting seems to increase tolerance.

Deliberation and voting are complementary activities that play an essential and dignity-enhancing role in democracy. Research shows that deliberation moderates extreme positions and tends to drive official behaviour towards the centre of the issue space. Deliberation also allows citizens to answer critics who have alleged that democracy is ultimately chaotic and meaningless, prone to preference cycles and strategic voting.

By involving ourselves in the political process at this fundamental level, recent findings indicate that we can sharpen our focus on issues of genuine concern and moderate some of the vitriol that has come to characterize our politics.

Deliberation helps us look to the future; bring diverse people together; encourage learning and reflection; and promote consensus and compromise over bitter divides. The use of deliberation helps to support and complement representative democracy (the election of political representatives) by ensuring elected politicians engage with citizen perspectives and views. When viewed through this lens, democracy beyond the ballot box is not a new idea — for us, the task is about restoration (ensuring that it remains true to its roots), as much as it is about innovation.

The ideal of democracy as a deliberative system says that the essence of effective democracies are how able they are to operate as a feedback loop — transmitting and acting as accountability mechanisms between those who hold power; and those who have an interest in the outcome of the issue or the decision. Healthy democracies are able to promote responsiveness and accountability between institutions, experts and citizens; whilst those that fail to, do lack precisely those qualities. In building their democracy, Kenyans must demand more of themselves as well as of their institutions — confronting deep cultural change in the way they interact with those whose lives they affect, simply by the mere fact of their own existence.

Indeed, Public Participation is one of the national values and principles of governance enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya, 2010. Article 10(2) (a) of the Constitution specifically states that the national values and principles of governance include patriotism, national unity, sharing and devolution of power, the rule of law, democracy and participation of the people. The participation of the people is popularly referred to as Public Participation.

Article 10 (1) of the Constitution states that national values and principles of governance bind all state organs, state officers, public officers and all persons whenever any of them applies or interprets the Constitution; enacts, applies or interprets any law; or makes or implements public policy decisions.

 Increasingly, from the court corridors, we have seen some legislation and policies invalidated due to inadequate Public Participation. For instance, in 2021, the Supreme Court declared the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) unconstitutional on the grounds that there was no meaningful public participation.

We have also come across instances of County Government legislation and policies being invalidated for the same reasons. In a decision delivered against a County Government, the court faulted its legislative and policy-making processes due to inadequate Public Participation, by stating, “Public participation ought to be real and not illusory and ought not to be treated as a mere formality for the purposes of fulfilment of the Constitutional dictates..”

The question of creating a better democracy might present us with more challenges than, perhaps, we are equipped to answer — but they also present us with opportunities. Perhaps, the best description of what these opportunities look like is one of the oldest. The Ancient Greek thinker Archimedes once said; ‘give me a lever, and a fulcrum upon which to place it – and I shall move the world.’ While citizen participation might be just one of those levers amongst many that exist to effect meaningful democratic systems change, it’s a vitally important one nevertheless.

Beyond August 9, Kenyans must remain engaged in the democratic process in between elections, and throughout the whole policy process — from what should be worked on to what the policies are to how they’re funded, to whether or not the money reaches their communities.

- Edwin Wanjawa is a lecturer at Pwani University