As you must know by now, I am a big fan of Kenyan political blogger Patrick Gathara. Here he is, hitting the nail on the head again about VOTING. Haven’t we had this conversation so many times before, here in Jamaica? I have to agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Gathara’s conclusion: “A democratic system is not about replacing the people with rulers. But rather about enabling citizens to participate in their own governance and always keeping government accountable to them.”
You can find this article at http://gathara.blogspot.com
By the way, congratulations to Mr. Gathara for winning the Best Governance Blog at the recent Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE) Awards. Kenya seems to have a thriving and well organised blogging community.
Kenya is today truly in the grip of election fever. Political temperatures are rising, the economy is feeling lethargic, shenanigans at the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission are causing severe headaches and hateful political speeches are inducing nausea.
Why do we endure this? Every five years, we are harangued into registering for the vote and into casting our ballots on voting day. Many commentators go so far as to declare your vote to be your voice and that a failure to vote is an abdication of the right to complain about government policy. In fact, President Kenyatta was, earlier in his term, fond of telling opposition supporters to stop complaining about his government and to wait for elections where they could do something about it.
“You had your chance to lead. Now it’s our turn,” his deputy, William Ruto, said in response to sustained criticism from opposition leader, Raila Odinga. “Let us do our jobs. Help us, but give us room to do what we were elected to do. In a few years there’ll be another election.” In this formulation, there is the idea that in order to “do what it was elected to do” the government must be spared criticism.
It is all hogwash. Voting is just one of the many mechanisms democracy should afford the people to partake in governance. In fact, it is not the casting of a ballot once every five years that is the crucial characteristic of democracy; many authoritarian systems feature elections. Rather, it is popular participation in everyday governance – in enforcing accountability and influencing the decisions government makes in between elections – that marks a system out as a democracy.
Elections only gain life and death importance when all other paths to accountability and participation are blocked. And given the way their rules have been fixed, electoral contests have become more about legitimizing elite ambitions rather than solving the people’s problems. The manifestos that have been unveiled this week illustrate this, focused as they are on highfalutin visions rather than fixing mundane, everyday problems.
This sets us up for a horrible cycle. Because there is no accountability and minimal participation of the voting public in governance after the election, politicians will promise anything knowing they do not need to deliver it. Voters, also knowing this, will prioritize what they can get during campaigns since there is no way of guaranteeing that you will get anything after. Thus voter bribery and improbable manifesto promises.
It also incentivizes corruption. For the candidates, there are incentives to spend huge amounts of money getting elected because it opens the gates to a world of looting and self-enrichment through corrupt contracting. And the more one can steal, the more largesse one has to bribe the public at the next election, and so on.
Regardless of the nature of the system, there is little recognition of the fact that not voting remains a legitimate choice. One may either not wish to legitimize the outcome of an obviously flawed process or may prefer to participate in other ways. Just as voting should not be construed as the end of democratic participation, not voting should not be seen as surrendering all rights to other forms of democratic participation including complaining about the way leaders elected by others govern.
Contrary to the prevailing notions, Kenyan history shows us that change does not come via the vote. It was not standing in line that forced the dictatorial regime of Daniel Arap Moi to loosen the reins on society. Rather, it was demands for accountability by the masses using other equally legitimate avenues of democratic participation such as the street, organized civil society and the media that ended the single-party state, reformed the electoral system and paved the way to regime change.
Those old enough will recall that in the euphoria following the election of Mwai Kibaki, the church, media and civil society eased the pressure for reform thinking we now had allies in power. In short order, many of the bad habits of the Nyayo era resurfaced. We quickly went from citizens arresting policemen in the streets for demanding bribes to Kibaki sending the GSU into Bomas to stop the constitutional reform talks and to a proliferation of corruption scandals. The important lesson here is not that voting is unimportant, but rather that it is not the only, or even, the most effective form of citizen participation. The election of Kibaki did not bring democracy but rather was a product of the democratic space created by citizens prior to the vote.
Instead of a ballot box fetish, our focus should be on participation in between elections. We should examine the many ways our system makes it difficult for ordinary people to participate in lawmaking or express their opinions and easy for the government to ignore them when they do. We should be concerned when peaceful protesters are beaten down, or online activism is disparaged and when MPs, under the pretense of giving effect to the constitutional right of recall, pass a law that makes it well-nigh impossible for their constituents to recall them.
In what is perhaps the most memorable phrase in his famous address at Gettysburg in the aftermath of the US Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.“ A democratic system is not about replacing the people with rulers. But rather about enabling citizens to participate in their own governance and always keeping government accountable to them.
If this were the case in Kenya, then elections would not make us sick.