ANYANG' NYONG'O: Presidential 'democracy' stifles elections, deny voters freedom of choice in favor of populist demagogues

The tendency when populism doesn’t lead to tangible positive changes is that the regime begins to invent multiple enemies in society

In Summary

• Since 1992, multi-party elections have been held consistently every five years: 1997, 2002, 2007, 2013, 2017 and 2022.

• That makes a total of 13 general and presidential elections since Independence. Of these 13, only two have been hailed as democratic.


“We hold these truths to be self evident

That all men (and women) are born equal”

-Declaration of independence of the United States of America

Recognizing the aspirations of ALL Kenyans for a government based on the essential values of human rights, equality, freedom, democracy, social justice and the rule of law.”

-Part of the preamble to the 2010 Kenyan Constitution.

That people have always accepted political power over them grudgingly is evident in all political theories. This is right from the Hobbesian notion that political power is a necessary evil to the libertarian notion that people would rather do without power over them except for the fact that they freely choose to lose the control of society to an authority provided that this authority is kept on a tight leash not to run rogue on those it controls.

A distinction has been made between civil liberties and civil rights, yet the two are closely interrelated and reinforce each other. Civil liberties refer to personal liberties, those claims to the rights of each one of us that we hold as self-evident.

For example, that all men are born equal with a derivative right to enjoy life without interfering with the right of a neighbor or a fellow countryman. The right to think, write, speak and protect one’s family from any external danger. In other words, the right to enjoy full citizenship in one’s place of birth or residence.

Civil rights, on the other hand, refer to the rights that are coded into law to help safeguard the civil liberties and the art of living together in society. These are rights such as the right to vote, the right to be represented in court and the right to keep away government from interfering with one’s private space.

To protect both civil liberties and civil rights, we must seek solace in George Bernard Shaw, who made it very simple by saying that, in both cases, we still need to be governed and yet to control our governors. Finding the formula to control our governors is the core issue, stupid.

The problem, however, is that in so-called presidential democracies—cousins to authoritarian rule — controlling the occupant of the presidency once he sits on that seat is not a very easy task.

The people are at a great disadvantage in exercising all those high sounding principles, resident in their constitution, stipulating that the people are sovereign. No. The president is sovereign. Let me illustrate.

Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School in the US wrote an erudite article on how Trump’s tyranny proved America isn’t immune to authoritarianism. But added a rider that Americans can survive tyranny.

Yet “surviving this tyranny”, if we go back to refresh our memories on what Plato wrote in The Republic, may mean re-examining how we deal with the very freedom that democracy entails; those freedoms that are held as self-evident in the American constitution but always have tendencies to open the doors to tyranny from Plato’s perspective.

Mobs in democracies, Plato argued, when exited about a new but simplistic idea that can save from an impending danger like war, can surrender their freedom to a would-be tyrant, who simplifies the road to salvation or conquest in war.

For this very reason of the tendency of democracy to degenerate into tyranny, Adam Gopnik has observed that autocracies are resurgent in the 21st century, and today’s would-be strongmen are using a new set of tools. A new type of authoritarian has learned to exploit electoral democracy and social media, turning citizens into fans. 

Plato never envisaged what would happen to democracy in the days when the social media would dominate the world of journalism and the spoken word in telephones, radios and televisions. He could never have thought what manipulation of freedom of speech by the media would do to democracy. In Kenya, this type of democracy where individual minds can easily be shaped by the media to voluntarily join a mass chorus without much reflection or intellectual retrospection, is what gives presidential democracy a fertile ground to thrive.

“Presidential democracies”, the subject of the series of articles I am currently writing on the Kenyan experience, is this new type of authoritarianism the American scholars and journalists are talking about.

We designed a system of elections where only the President is elected by all Kenyans “of voting age’. Kenyans of voting age are accepted into the role of honor of voters by a small group of men and women who can easily be manipulated to create a biased voting role intended to produce an equally biased outcome. But an outcome that suits a would be authoritarian ruler in the making. It is all bahati nasibu.

But supposing the registration of voters goes well, the voting itself is free and fair and the counting and announcing of votes is equally well done, wouldn’t this system pass as suitable for democratic governance? Of course it would. And it has happened twice in our history: First in 1963 with the independence elections; and second in 2002 with the “Second Liberation” elections that ushered in the Narc government. But that is two elections out of how many? Let us count.

The election of 1966 was to allow the Kenya People’s Union, a break away party from the ruling party Kanu to participate in parliamentary elections. KPU won majority of votes but Kanu won majority of seats! Swallow that one and I will tell you another.

After the banning of the KPU in 1969, elections were held in that year under the Kanu one-party system, which were a formal procedure simply for Kanu to change individual players in Parliament without making any policy difference in government.

Kenya faithfully held elections every five years after that in 1974, 1979, 1983 and 1988 under the one-party system. The first multi-party elections was held in 1992 without much change in the one-party constitution except the removal of Section 2A of the Constitution, which had introduced the one-party regime in 1982 following the attempted coup d’etat in August that year.

Since 1992, multi-party elections have been held consistently every five years: 1997, 2002, 2007, 2013, 2017 and 2022.

That makes a total of 13 general and presidential elections since Independence. Of these 13, only two have been hailed as democratic. That is the Independence election of 1963 and the “Second Liberation” election of 2002, both of which were euphoric due to the near national consensus they were free and fair.

From the laws of probability, we can conclude that presidential “democracies” tend to stifle democratic elections by manipulating the electoral process to deny the voters the freedom of choice in favor of populist demagogues who can be incumbents in office or challengers from outside.

In the case of the triumph of the demagogic Trump, a non-incumbent, it has been argued that he exploited the uncertainties created by the wobbling American economy, with increasing unemployment, which he likened to the “taking away of American jobs by immigrants” from Mexico and the Islamic world.

Turning immigrants into “enemies of the people”, he worked up public sentiment that only he would ‘Make America Great Again’! For four years, President Donald Trump did not make any headway except pile up epithets of demagogic great ideas that were as divisive as they were outlandish.

That sounds familiar with our own bottom up development rhetoric, coupled with the hustler “economy” that underpins the Kenya Kwanza populism in Kenya today.

Both are pronounced by the President in speeches that would pass elocution contests with distinction but rarely lead to policies that can avert the growing economic crisis in the nation.

The tendency when such populism doesn’t lead to tangible positive changes is that the regime begins to invent multiple enemies in society, sources of resistance or criticism that must be dealt with. Repression, therefore, follows in the public sphere, beginning particularly with the media.

Media houses that do not toe the line of the regime, or are presumed to be threats because of their independence, are denied government advertisements or are not invited to state functions. This, of course, is an affront to civil liberty: the right to freedom of speech and of expression of ideas in the public domain.

Churches and religious gatherings where the ruling elite in such a regime can speak without being questioned as their ideas are expressed ex cathedra, become preferred political platforms by this elite.

But what is worse is when the Judiciary also becomes a tool of political rule in such a regime. Decisions of yesterday can easily be negated in the same court to suit the preferences of the regime. Hence any defense of civil liberties through the final port of call, the Judiciary, disappears and citizens soon accept rule by fear rather than by legitimate consent.

I have a nudging fear that this is the direction we are heading to in our republic. Justice may soon not be our shield and defender.

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