I have been studying Kenya’s political developments for a while now. But I cannot recall any other period when leaders and their supporters ever paid attention to voter registration like has happened in the past three weeks. Although I have been drawing this conclusion, I was surprised to hear this conclusion from another colleague. He too has been in the business of studying elections for a while now. He has come to the same conclusion: this is the first election where mobilising voters to register has taken the shape of an election campaign.
There is nothing wrong with political leaders mobilising people to register to vote. In fact it is a good thing because it creates awareness about an election. There is nothing wrong with doing so because it is done within the law. But there are some problems with it: how political leaders mobilise their constituencies to vote and the language they use to do so.
This is a problem in three ways. First, leaders in both sides of the divide, Jubilee and the Opposition, have used a language that divides the country into strongholds, swing counties, and “enemy” counties. Of course such divisions are expected in a country where people vote along ethnic and regional lines. This language is bad in one respect. It does not give chance for building a platform for issue-based politics. Everything is seen in terms of “we” versus “them”. It is about who has the best strategy of mobilising more people to register and, later on, to vote for them.
Voter registration has simply created a new problem. It has deepened ethnic divisions even before we reach the real date – August 8, 2017. Some leaders have created the impression that the election will be won or lost on basis of votes that each party will mobilise in the respective regions. This has heightened the political differences that lay quiet until election time. This has also made voter registration something to fear the way many fear elections. Political elites have invested in voter registration in a manner similar to how they invest in elections. In doing so, they have lost the chance to build an issue based platform for the 2017 elections.
Secondly, the language and approach used in voter registration assumes registered voters are “locked” somewhere. They are locked in a particular a “bloc”. But voter dynamics in the last three elections show limitations in this. Some of the so-called strongholds have internal dynamics that can depress voter turnout during the election day. Some voters in a particular “stronghold” may decide there are no stakes to fight for. In other instances, a political party may conduct botched primaries and by that disillusion voters.
The third problem concerns the observation that the language leaders are using is directing everyone towards the presidential election in August 2017. It blinds everyone of the fact that there will be five other elections held alongside the presidential election. The six will be held on the same day, August 8, 2017. Voters will cast their six ballots in the same booth almost the same time.
But each of the six elections will be different in terms of issues people will be voting for. People will be making choices on basis of many factors. The reasons for voting for a particular presidential candidate, probably, will be different from reasons for voting for a particular governor or senator. The same with MPs, MCAs, and Women Representatives.
Voters will face all the six ‘elections’ in August with different reasons. They make choices informed by a number of factors. Of course those in the strongholds will largely vote in a different manner from many others. But being in the strongholds is not a sufficient reason to explain the choices the voters make in these strongholds.
I do recall an experience in a past election when a group of us as researchers sought to find out how and why people voted the way they did. A discussion with a group of villagers was revealing. One particular woman voted the way she did because she thought the “government” was a thief and should have been arrested. She said she had lost her agricultural produce because of poor policies. Another one voted the way she did because she was convinced politicians were “mad men”. She voted for one she thought was “more mad” than others. But we asked how they voted for their MPs it was clear they wanted the MPs to address important issues. They wanted the MP to build better roads. They wanted the MP to bring piped water. They all associated the MP with development.
In 2013 we revisited the same questions in the same villages. Surprisingly, many voted the way they did in the presidential election because “this is our own son”. They voted the way they did because it was about “we” versus “them”. However, with regard to the governor, senator, MP, and MCA, the voters voted the way they did because they wanted development. The wanted tangible “things” from the elected leaders. They were very categorical they wanted a governor who can deliver. They wanted better services through devolution.
This should shock those involved in transfer of voters from one area to another. It is possible that one has paid for transfer of voters to a particular area on the understanding they will vote for him or her.
The truth is that voters are not gullible. Those in the strongholds of particular candidates may be gullible. But this is not true of those outside the strongholds. Secondly, voter transfers witnessed in recent weeks are meant to “boost” the numbers of candidates in lower level posts such as MCAs and the governors. These are the new centres and sources of resources in Kenya; they are attracting more attention than other seats.
There is the assumption the transfers will also boost vote numbers for presidential candidates. All this will depend on many other factors; some voters may decide not to support the candidates associated with the person paying for the transfers. They may turn against the person who paid for the transfers. Those who have paid for voters to transfer may not have paid attention to some of these details.
It is clear voters and leaders think differently. On one hand, voters want leaders who can deliver services. They want leaders who can provide tangible results. On the other hand, leaders want votes. This is why the registration is devoid of issues. Voter registration has generated a lot of heat without giving space for voters to ask what issues they will choose from.
Unfortunately, the August election is the first in many years where the campaign issues are not clear. The “we” versus “them” are not issues on which to build a country.
There has not been a moment to sit and reflect on how to move the counties or devolution forward. There has been no moment to reflect on how to address the different problems that affect all of us though in different ways. We are rapidly approaching the intersection where the road to discussing how the 2017 elections can create opportunities to rethink our policies for the future is closed.
All is not lost. The elections will still provide an opportunity for people to put on the table their demands for governors and MCAs to address at the county level.
There are many and many people who are looking at the county governments as the new centre on which everything in their areas will revolve.
There is a chance also to correct these mistakes. The competing parties have an opportunity to table their manifestoes for review by Kenyans. It is possible that these will generate sufficient debate to discuss the future and what people want.
Prof Karuti Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi.