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September 21, 2018

Not voting is a democratic right

Not voting is a democratic right
Not voting is a democratic right

Kenya is today truly in the grip of election fever. Political temperatures are rising, the economy is feeling lethargic, shenanigans at the IEBC are causing severe headaches and divisive and hateful political speeches are still 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 Uhuru Kenyatta was 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 legitimising 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 prioritise 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 incentivises 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 largess one has to bribe the public at the next election, and so on.

Further, 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 legitimise the outcomes 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.

Instead of a ballot-box fetish, our focus should be on participation after the vote. 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 pretence 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.

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