Why electoral reform matters: Lessons for the US, from Kenya

On the eve of a poll that many believe ‘could break America’, the US can learn a lot from Kenya’s election woes.


Patrick Gathara | Al Jazeera.


Fire consumed a market in Nairobi on Friday as election-related violence spread [Dai Kurokawa/European Pressphoto Agency]



In an article entitled The Election That Could Break America meant for The Atlantic magazine’s November edition but published early online because of its “urgency”, Barton Gellman lays out the potentially scary scenario that could unfold in the United States in the likely event President Donald Trump loses the upcoming election and refuses to concede. In it, he argues the country is on the brink of an unprecedented electoral and constitutional crisis – heading into “a perfect storm of adverse conditions” that it cannot avoid. “On [Election Day] November 3,” he writes, “we sail toward its center mass. If we emerge without trauma, it will not be an unbreakable ship that has saved us.”


While such waters may not be new to Americans, as he demonstrates, they have previously relied on the sensibilities of their politicians not to push too far into the tempest. This time, however, their ship’s captain seems determined to steer directly into it and there does not appear to be any way to stop him.


The striking thing about this storm is it did not come out of the blue. It has been known for a long time that there were fundamental problems with the US electoral system, but until now, Americans have appeared to take peaceful elections and official handovers for granted – “our Constitution does not secure the peaceful transition of power, but rather presupposes it,” Gellman quotes from one US legal scholar.


Yet, as people in the rest of the world know, presidential elections can destroy nations. And, like with the coronavirus pandemic, it is the countries which thought themselves the most prepared that turn out to be the most vulnerable. After more than two centuries of largely peaceful, if not always free and fair, elections, Americans have become complacent, assuming disputed elections do not pose a particularly significant threat – in any case, nothing on a par with “illegal” immigration or Iranian bombs.


Kenya, on the other hand, has had a depressing familiarity with stolen elections and the havoc they can wreak. Like the Americans, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, Kenyans used to consider their country immune to the dangers of poor electoral systems. Sure, all the elections since the reintroduction of a multiparty political system had been accompanied by a measure of violence. However, the troubles confined to the peripheries were stage-managed by the state, and so did not seem to threaten the country in the same way political conflict had doomed most of our neighbours. Kenya, we told ourselves, was an island of peace in a sea of chaos.


December 2002 brought the most peaceful election yet, ended the 40-year dominance of the independence party KANU and sent the late dictator Daniel Moi into retirement. The zenith was reached three years later when the government lost a national referendum conducted almost without incident. Kenyan democracy was on an unstoppable march and the spectre of dangerous plebiscites had been exorcised.


Yet just two years later, in December 2007, the country convulsed in election-related blood-letting that officially left at least 1,300 dead and myriads more injured, raped and displaced. It threatened to tear apart the very fabric of the country and, combined with a traumatic history, has left a deep-seated terror of elections ever since.


A few years back, many would have scoffed at the idea that the US could learn something about democracy and elections from countries like Kenya, which has been independent for less than 60 years and which would probably be included in Trump’s list of “s***hole” nations. However, that hubris has been effectively deflated by the inability to contain his ineptitude and rising authoritarianism over the last four years. It turns out our ships may not be all that different after all.


As part of the settlement that ended the 2007 post-election violence, Kenya created a commission of inquiry to look into the electoral system and make recommendations on how to repair it. Headed by a respected South African judge, Johann Kriegler, it came up with a series of fixes most of which were ignored by a political class more interested in maintaining its ability to manipulate elections than in ensuring the polls were free and fair.


As a result, presidential elections in Kenya have continued to be traumatic affairs, run on a system that has little popular credibility, resulting in predictable court challenges and, in one case, in 2017, an annulment which led to yet another non-credible election. In two years’ time, the country will again face another election and to date, there has been nothing done to fix the problems that afflicted the previous ones.


Like Kenya, which should perhaps know better, the US is a country blindly sailing into troubled waters in a rickety ship guided solely by faith that nothing will seriously go wrong. As Gellman points out, it is already too late to create a sturdier vessel but on the other side of the tempest, there will be an opportunity to revisit the problems. The lesson from Kenya is that Americans must not allow that opportunity to pass nor allow their politicians to lull them back into a false sense of security till the next presidential contest. In the words of John Adams, the second US president, ensuring credible elections will teach representatives “the great political virtues of humility, patience and moderation without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey”.


And this lesson stretches beyond elections. Trump’s tenure has also exposed fundamental weaknesses and flaws in American democracy, in its ability to contain a rogue president and to hold them to account, and its reliance on the goodwill of its politicians to function. Nearly 170 years ago, when the US would have been just slightly older than Kenya is today, the lawyer and orator Wendell Phillips warned that: “The hand entrusted with power becomes … the necessary enemy of the people.” Depending on the goodwill of public officials, as Trump has demonstrated, is the broad road to hell. Today it is a road paved with the souls of 200,000 COVID-19 victims.


Strengthening oversight mechanisms and imposing real limitations on the power of the presidency would be the only way to prevent, as Phillips went on to say, an incumbent “hardening into a despot”. Kenyans have so far failed to do this. There is no reason why Americans should.



Published by Al Jazeera September 29, 2020.


© 2020 Al Jazeera Media Network.

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