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Fears of election rigging may fuel further abuses in Kenya: democracy could be the loser

Kenya election officials inspect voting packs at a holding centre ahead of the August 2017 elections. Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images

As Kenyans approach a general election in August 2022, many lack confidence in the electoral process.

According to a national opinion poll conducted by Afrobarometer in 2019, only 29.2% of Kenyans thought that the country’s 2017 election was free and fair. Another 33.5% thought that there were minor problems, 12% that there were major problems, and 21.7% that the elections were not free and fair at all.

Moreover, according to a 2021 poll commissioned by South Consulting, although around half of Kenyans have confidence in the electoral commission to support a free and fair election, around half also believe that the government’s favoured candidate will win, no matter how people vote.

Despite this scepticism, a majority of Kenyans will likely still turn out to vote as they have done in previous polls. This isn’t to say that voter apathy is not an issue. It is, and contributed to the electoral commission’s ability to register only 25% of its target in last year’s mass voter registration drive and about 23% of its target this year.

Nevertheless, only 10.4% of respondents in the 2019 Afrobarometer survey said they would not vote in 2022.

So, many who lack confidence in the integrity of the process will still make the effort to go out and vote. How can we explain this paradox?

Sceptics might say that some voters are simply paid to turn out to vote. Handouts may be common during campaigns, but it is possible to receive money and not vote, and to receive money and vote differently. The costs involved in voting – getting to the polling station and the hours of work or ‘hustling’ lost – often outweigh any financial inducement received.

In our recent book, The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa: Democracy, Voting and Virtue, we investigate this paradox by looking at the political opinions and feelings that develop around elections.

We do so by drawing on research conducted in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda between 2014 and 2017. This included participant observations of campaigns and elections, over 300 qualitative interviews, and nationally representative surveys.

The research focused on the moral claims made by officials, politicians, civil society, international observers and voters. It revealed how elections are the site of intense moral claims-making, which, among other things, helps explain why there is such vigorous participation in processes that often seem flawed.

Turning out

We found that some voters are motivated by hope that the next election will be better. Others by a higher level of confidence in lower-level races where reports of malpractice are less widespread. Voter turnout is also boosted by the fact that Kenyans vote for six posts in one day.

More importantly, many citizens are motivated by a sense that voting is a civic duty. The importance of this is reflected in the sharing of inky finger selfies on election day, for instance.

Elections are also valued as a moment when voters can reject those they believe have failed or likely will fail to protect and promote their national, community and individual interests. Citizens get to cast their ballot for a candidate in whom they have greater confidence.

Yet, this explanation raises further questions. If people are motivated by a sense of civic duty and claims-making around the kind of leaders they want, why have a minority been involved in electoral malpractice over the years? This includes those who cast multiple votes or disrupt voting.

We found that deviation from electoral rules can be the result of bribery or coercion. It is also often possible for such actions to be justified, both to oneself and others, as a virtuous act in the interests of an individual, community or the nation. This is not a Kenyan phenomenon. Aspects of the moral economy we describe occur in other African states, as well as European and North American nations.

To give one example, if a handout is interpreted as a bribe, it’s likely to be unsuccessful as citizens opt to ‘eat’ with one candidate and vote for another. We found that handouts only tend to be successful when – as historian Paul Nugent has argued regarding Ghana – they are “converted into some kind of moral authority” and viewed as a sign of generosity, accessibility or assistance.

If candidates don’t find ways to build relationships with communities – for instance, if they simply turn up and throw money at people during campaigns – they will be viewed with suspicion. They will likely be accused of being corrupt or illegitimate, and waste their money.

Strike first

But what about involvement in violence or rigging, which are both illegal and – as our surveys and Afrobarometer surveys have revealed – broadly unpopular across the continent?

In addition to recognising the role of politicians in organising and inciting violence, interviewees sometimes excused violence as an unfortunate, but necessary, part of the political game.

At times, it was justified on the basis that it was necessary to prevent a greater injustice. This could be the need to use strong-arm tactics to ensure order, to strike first to pre-empt an attack, to defend, or to reject electoral injustice.

When it comes to rigging, it’s tempting to think of ballot fraud as things done to unsuspecting citizens by wily politicians. In reality, we found that these processes are sometimes co-produced. ‘Over-voting’ in a candidate’s strongholds, for example, usually takes place with the complicity of some community members.

Similarly, our research found that the main justification provided by those who admitted involvement in multiple voting was an assumption that other candidates were doing the same. As one man explained of a party primary in 2007:

“Yes, of course our opponent also tried to stuff ballots, it was only that we stole more than they could”.

This need to counter the rigging an opponent would likely engage in was often intertwined with the idea that one had to prevent the ‘other’ from winning. The justification was that their victory would, for one reason or another, ‘be disastrous’ for the individual, community or nation.

The danger for democracy

There are many reasons to think that Kenya will avoid major political disruption in 2022, including the fact that the main candidates are going to great lengths not to frame their campaigns in ethnic terms.

But the fact that many Kenyans lack confidence in the electoral process is worrying both for public engagement and because of the range of behaviours that it may be used to justify.

In other words, by making a range of illegal and unhelpful behaviours appear to be more justifiable, fears, evidence and perceptions of election malpractice can undermine the fight for a stronger and more stable democracy.

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