The global surge of populism presents a venal and barefaced assault on the norms of social politeness, decency and decorum which underpin democracy.
This strident blitz by populists on norms and institutions is the newest existential threat to democracy.
“In a democracy”, wrote the Greek historian, Thucydides, “someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself [herself] with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.” Victory is sweet; loss is painful; but there will always be winners and losers — and another day to fight.
“I won the popular vote if you deduct millions of people who voted illegally”, wrote President Donald Trump in a tweet, venting his anger at losing the popular vote in last year’s American elections. This epitomises not just a bad loser, but shows that even the most powerful of leaders can succumb to “an overdeveloped sense of entitlement”, preventing them from accepting loss and moving on.
As the debacle around the results of the August 8, 2017 General Election demonstrated in a public and palpable way, Kenya’s populists in the opposition are caught up in this deep sense of entitlement.
The disputed December 27, 2007 elections forced Kenya’s democracy on a retreat.
In its aftermath, Kenyans have taken to heart these sagely words of Abraham Lincoln, who famously said: “The ballot is stronger than the bullet.” These words define their choices between order and anarchy.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has won fair and square, garnering over 8.2 million votes (54.27 pc) against Raila Odinga’s over 6 million votes (44.74 pc). Uhuru’s Jubilee Party and affiliates have also won a commanding plurality of seats in counties, parliament and senate.
Laudably, in his acceptance speech, Kenyatta embraced the losers with grace and humility.
His triumphal re-election has enhanced the legitimacy of Kenya’s democracy — although it is still work in progress.
Election observers praised the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission — which survived over 200 court cases — for professionally conducting one of Kenya’s most competitive, fair, free and credible elections.
However, the true champions of Kenya’s revamped democracy are the 15.7 million voters who braved bad weather and stayed in long queues to cast their ballots — with their new icon as the well-prepared “Githeri man” queuing to vote holding a bag of cheap traditional meal of boiled maize and beans.
As Theodore Roosevelt correctly observed, “A vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.”
Kenya (working with its international partners) need to prioritise voter education to produce an enlightened voter.
Kenya is a classic case of how losers without grace can imperil democracy. The 72-year-old Raila Odinga, who has fought for the presidency four times, refused to concede defeat, charging that the IEBC servers were hacked. IEBC dismissed the claim. However, it was forced to resort to a protracted manual tabulation of electoral forms 34A and B, an exercise that produced the same preliminary results broadcast by the media.
Nasa’s move to declare poll victory for Odinga, though a doomed and hilarious circus, reflected badly on the opposition’s respect for the rule of law and institutions. Its refusal to go to court to seek redress for its grievances paved the way for sporadic small-scale violence, especially in Luo Nyanza.
It disregarded the widespread call by observers on parties to publicly and vigorously encourage supporters to refrain from any acts of violence and intimidation, and to seek redress to electoral complaints through the courts and to abide by the the decisions of courts.
Despite this, how the 2017 election was won and lost is crystal clear. It was a veritable clash of titanic proportions between two strategic approaches.
Jubilee pursued a two-pronged strategy that consolidated its strongholds in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley as a solid voting bloc while relentlessly bombarding opposition strongholds and “swing areas” in Kisii, Lower Eastern, Coast, Western Kenya and Nairobi. The merger of major Jubilee coalition parties into one cohesive formation transformed Jubilee Party into a well-oiled war machine able to execute this strategy.
In contrast, the rival National Super Alliance relied on a robust bid – data and media-heavy perpetual campaign model, with little focus on grassroots campaign.
In this election, Nasa was no more than a moniker, a brand without legal meaning, which served more to confuse than to mobilise.
Jubilee was a brand on the ballot; Nasa was not. This confusion coupled with cut-throat competition between NASA affiliates perhaps accounts for an inordinately large number of spoilt votes.
Be that as it may, Nasa paid dearly for its largely “media-led” and Nairobi-based strategy.
Jubilee and its affiliates made significant gains in Nasa strongholds. More painful was Nasa’s loss of the powerful seats of Nairobi governor and Senator.
Moreover, appointments of chief agents by the parties reflected the strategies of rival parties. While Jubilee appointed an IT expert as its chief agent, Nasa appointed a lawyer. As a result, Nasa confused IEBC for a court, presenting grievances.
Kenya must now go to the drawing board and construct a robust “loyal opposition” as a necessary part of our democratic system of government. As Edward Murrow famously said in the case of America, “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”
The 2017 elections have revealed that Kenya’s democracy has a serious deficit of a culture of loyal opposition. In the context of the rising populism and extremism, this risks killing the soul of Kenya.
Generally, while the civil society actively monitored the electoral process, hate speech and incitement to violence, a rogue section within its ranks served as ideologues of the opposition, peddling rumours and fake information in media houses and cyberspace.
Investing civil society as an independent and depoliticised space and in the art of winning and losing gracefully are pivotal to a peaceful transition after elections.
Prof Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and currently heads the Africa Policy Institute