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September 24, 2018

You can write 'a plague on both your houses' on ballot

Locals queues to to cast their vote at Kaderbhoy Mvita in Mombasa county Kenya on August 8th 2017.Several voters queued as early as 4am to participate in electoral process. Security measures has been beefed-up across the Coast region/ELKANA  JACOB
Locals queues to to cast their vote at Kaderbhoy Mvita in Mombasa county Kenya on August 8th 2017.Several voters queued as early as 4am to participate in electoral process. Security measures has been beefed-up across the Coast region/ELKANA JACOB

Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet cursed the warring families (we might say tribes) of the Montagues and the Capulets and their meaningless feud that was killing him.

We suspect many Kenyans feel like this as they read their news media, printed or social, and wonder if it has to be so.

Yash Ghai thinks not. The first part of this article is his.



When I was a graduate student at Oxford, the College regularly invited distinguished politicians, ministers and civil servants for discussions with staff and students on topical issues.

I paid particular attention to politicians (as Kenya was about to become independent). I met politicians of all three major parties. I used to provoke Tories, because I had the notion that they were the imperialists, and had soft corner for the Labour members because they were on the side of freedom. They, naturally, had all different things to say and presented different points of view. They also expressed these views at election times—and were judged accordingly. And if they were elected, you could see their policies resembled what they had promised the electorate. That was an important lesson in democracy.

I was also very impressed at a personal level. They all seemed very earnest and were prepared to sit into the small hours defending their policies—and listening to us. Since Ali Mazrui was a fellow student, you can imagine that we gave the Tories a hard time. Most parliamentarians invited us to meet them when we were in London for further discussions—and to see the proceedings of Parliament, after lunch in the parliamentary restaurant. There was no pomposity.

Some research showed me that they all had a distinguished career of one kind or another, which had given up to go into politics, where they earned much less. Most attended Parliament regularly — and went to their constituencies over the weekend, where they were available to be consulted, or complained against, regardless of their party affiliation.

Elections did not cause much expenditure. I knew of no example where elections bankrupted the government! Government did not have to launch a bond on domestic or foreign markets for “necessary” funds.

It was extremely, extremely rare for a politician to change political parties — and then only for policy differences — not for money. Voters had a real choice of policies, for each party offered a distinct set of priorities.

There was hardly ever a dispute about electoral results. Elections were properly run, politicians did not cheat, nor was money given to (or asked by) voters — as I know because, being from a Commonwealth country, I could and did vote. Elections were all peaceful; I never heard of physical fights, much less killings.

Politicians campaigned vigorously, sometimes even rudely, but did not incite to violence or insult their opponents, and focussed mainly on the policies of the various parties.

What I really sensed was a commitment to public service, not to personal ambition, to elevating the people, not diminishing opponents. And that politics was not a morality-free zone, where anything goes, but one where people were genuinely concerned to do the right thing.

Is it any wonder that I was completely converted to democracy — and even helped to strengthen it (I thought) in our Constitution?

But now, on many days, after reading the media, I share the “plague on both your houses” sentiments.





A friend proposes that Kenyans should be able to vote “none of the above”. In other words, to indicate clearly that they feel that no candidate (in whichever race they are voting in) is worthy of a responsible citizen’s vote.

Of course, you can already leave your ballot paper blank. You can even write “A plague on all their houses” across it. But no one would know you had done this because your ballot paper will simply be “rejected” along with those of others who failed to express their choice clearly, or decided to vote for all the candidates.

Is such an idea viable and would it have any value? There have been vigorous campaigns in a number of countries, including Australia, Taiwan, and the UK, to introduce “none of the above” — often-called NOTA (or “negative voting”) — as an option.

A few countries actually allow such a vote. In Brazil, voting is compulsory, but NOTA is an option. In the US state of Nevada, NOTA has been possible since 1976. In Sweden, where voters vote for parties by putting into the box a paper with a list of their chosen parties’candidates, it is possible for voters to pick up a blank vote to put into the box instead (and the number of such blanks will be announced).

In India, the Election Commission itself proposed that voting machines should include a NOTA button. The Supreme Court agreed and said, “Not allowing a person to cast vote negatively defeats the very freedom of expression and the right to liberty”. And it suggested, “In a vibrant democracy, the voter must be given an opportunity to choose none of the above (NOTA) button, which will indeed compel the political parties to nominate a sound candidate”.

What is the consequence of voting NOTA? In most systems, none in terms of the result. But in some these votes for “none of them” can make it harder for someone to get elected. It could work like that here — at least in the Presidential elections, where, to be elected, a candidate must get more than 50 per cent of the “votes cast”. A NOTA vote could (should) be counted as a vote cast, not dismissed as a rejected ballot.

The NOTA vote can make a significant political point. For example, in a recent senatorial election in Nevada, the margin between the winning and losing candidates was only 12,000. Over 45,000 voters had voted NOTA. In such a system, NOTA votes get publicity. People have commented on the apparently large number of “rejected” ballots in our August 8 election. Could some of them have been NOTA votes?

Apparently a Portuguese novelist, José Saramago, in his novel, Seeing, imagined an election where 83 per cent of the voters return a blank ballot. One account of the novel says that the government declares a state of emergency, builds a wall around the capital, and the police hunt for “terrorist” voters who cast the blank ballots. NOTA voting can unsettle governments.



There seems no constitutional or legal objection to allowing NOTA voting. Such a system would acknowledge what it is perfectly possible to do already: Indicate you do not want any of the candidates. It could, as indicated earlier, make a difference in Presidential elections ¬— in a close race it might make a run-off necessary.

In other elections, it would make no difference to the result. In Taiwan, though, it has been suggested that if “NOTA” got the most votes, the election would be run again but with different candidates. This approach has certain logic: In such a scenario, most voters rejected the lot, so why let any run again?

But in Kenya, any such scenario would be highly unlikely. Either Kenyans really believe in their candidates, or they are tactical voters: They vote for A, not with enthusiasm, but to keep the even worse B out. A protest vote — voting for a third person, either because you think they are the best, or because you want to signal disgust with the frontrunners — is considered a wasted vote. After all, we had the chance on August 8 of voting for one of the six people other than Raila Odinga or Uhuru Kenyatta. That would have been a sort of NOTA vote (or at least a “Neither of the likely winners” vote) but very few took that approach.

But is it worth discussing? Or are there more effective ways for Kenyans to say, “We don’t want any of you”?

Poll of the day