Toward Democracy in Kenya

The recent election in Kenya seemed to underscore the fashionable view that democracy can't take hold in Africa, and that American efforts at promoting democracy are a waste of time. The media portrayed it as an unmitigated disaster.

But a closer look suggests that Kenya is making slow but significant progress toward democratic rule. The election also provides important lessons about the course of democratization in Africa, and for international efforts to facilitate that process.

From an administrative standpoint, Kenya's elections were indeed a mess. Ballots arrived late or not at all in roughly a quarter of the 12,600 polling places. The poll was continued a second day, prompting allegations of rigging. As in 1992, when Kenya held its first multiparty election in 26 years, this year's elections were preceded by months of harassment of the opposition, including the beating and temporary jailing of would-be candidates, biased reporting in the government-controlled broadcast media, and ethnic clashes that took the lives of some 100 citizens and left more than 10,000 homeless.

But this is not the entire story.

On election day, over 6.1 million Kenyans went to the polls, 68 percent of those registered and 48 percent of the voting age population, roughly the same as in the 1996 US presidential election. Despite the predicted reelection of President Daniel arap Moi with 40 percent of the vote, his party, KANU, won only 107 seats in the National Assembly, compared to 103 by the fragmented opposition. Half of Mr. Moi's Cabinet were defeated.

Earlier this year, domestic and international pressure forced Moi to agree to appoint, after the elections, a commission that will craft a new constitution. The fact that KANU fell far short of the two-thirds majority required to pass new rules means that Moi must negotiate with the opposition, increasing the probability that Kenya's elected representatives will agree to a compromise document acceptable to all sides.

This could result in a reduction of the executive powers long abused by Moi in return for a measure of devolution to local or district-level government. Among other things, devolution would mean more accountable and corruption-free government for the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest ethnic group.

The elections also have reinvigorated civil society and the press - two fundamental components of any democratic system. In contrast to 1992, when 5,000 Kenyans monitored the elections, nearly 28,000 did so this year. Virtually every polling place was covered, and the election results now have been broadly accepted as legitimate. Because the Catholic Church, the National Council of Churches, and the Institute of Education for Democracy came together, Kenyans got a fairer shake at the polls, even if the opposition refused to unite to defeat Moi.

Is Kenya a democracy by Western standards? Not yet. Is its political system significantly more democratic today than before the return to multiparty politics in December 1991? Undoubtedly. The process of democratization takes time. One election does not a democracy make. But a series of elections, each better than the last, builds a viable electoral system.

The US and others should stay the course. The groundwork has been laid for the next elections, in 2002, when Moi can't succeed himself. Perhaps by that time the opposition will unite into a viable alternative to the ruling party and/or KANU will evolve into a more accountable coalition.

Bottom line: The reforms enacted in response to domestic and international pressure are bearing fruit. The US should continue its efforts to support democratization in Kenya and elsewhere on the African continent.

* Joel D. Barkan is professor of political science at the University of Iowa and visiting senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace. David F. Gordon is senior fellow at the Overseas Development Council. Both previously served as democracy/governance advisers for USAID in Kenya.

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