Kenya’s learning curve in democracy

Reforms since the tribal-fueled violence of the 2007 election should help Kenya set an example for a continent in need of fair and peaceful elections.

AP Photo
Kenyans queue to cast their votes at dusk at a polling station in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Aug. 8.

When Kenyans cast their ballots on Aug. 8, they were not only voting on the issues and candidates but also to ensure the future of their democracy. This is important for the rest of Africa, where fair and free elections are still a rarity. If Kenya can demonstrate a learning curve in holding credible and peaceful votes, the rest of the continent will take note.

The key test in this election are reforms implemented after the violence of the 2007 election. Did they lessen Kenya’s ethnic divisions? The two leading presidential candidates, the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, did play to their tribal bases. Yet they also reached out to other tribes.  And compared with previous contests, their policies represent very different approaches to governance, from poverty reduction to corruption fighting.

The post-2007 reforms included constitutional changes that work against the ethnic divide, devolve power, and improve the voting system. In addition, the  rising population of urban youth is more digitally connected and civic-minded. More than half of registered voters are under the age of 35. They demand activist government that is inclusive and focused on growth, not on winning spoils from government by ethnicity.

While Kenya’s economy is growing at a fast clip, it faces stark inequality in land ownership and a worsening in corruption. About half of the country’s 48 million people live below the poverty line. Kenya is also burdened by refugees and violence spilling over the border from Somalia and South Sudan. The newly elected president must tackle all of these problems. That task is made easier, however, if the election is seen as fair. A return to the kind of postelection violence experienced in 2007-08, when more than 1,000 people were killed, would set back Kenya – and Africa.

That is why so many international groups were supporting this election, which is one of Africa’s largest with some 16,000 candidates. With that global focus, many Kenyans turned out to vote simply to ensure a resilient democracy.

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