THE LAST WORD: The Kenya, Rwanda elections


FILE PHOTO: Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) officials make a sweep of electoral material August 7, 2017 at a holding centre in Kagio before their distribution to the polling stations a day before the Kenya general election.

KENYA, RWANDA: How voting in these two East African nations reflects our understanding of democracy

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | East Africa has recently witnessed two presidential elections – in Rwanda and in Kenya. The two nations are different. Rwanda is a small country with one ethnic group which shares a common language, culture, and a history of nationhood and statehood for the last 550 years. Kenya, on the other hand, is a recent creation of the British; a hotchpotch of tens of ethnic groups that had never formed one unified nation and state. Rwanda has been through military coups, civil war, and genocide. Kenya has been stable.

In Rwanda, the campaign pitted incumbent president Paul Kagame against Western human rights groups and interests seeking to take control of the destiny of the country. This eclipsed any domestic differences that may have existed and caused masses of Rwandans to rally as one nation. The history of genocide combined with a common sense of identity shaped the vote.

In Kenya, the election was hotly contested between the incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his rival, Raila Odinga. The leaders on both sides of the Kenyan political divide share a common historic background (as sons of the founding fathers), and a common economic position (they are all wealthy). So they have a common interest to protect their aristocratic political positions and public policies and political institutions that undergird their wealth. What divides them is power i.e. who should control the state. Unable to differentiate themselves around economic interests, Kenyan elites rely on ethnic identity.

There are two main ways to understand democracy. One is by looking at the source of power (i.e. popular consent) and the purpose to which power is put (service to the people). This definition fits Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy as “a government of the people, by the people and for the people.” It is an idealistic view that holds that real democracy should have popular control over public policy combined with a responsible government that serves the interests of the general public rather than a few elites; and one that upholds civic virtues such as honesty.

However, in 1942 the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, introduced a counter argument in his book `Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy’. He argued that the essence of democracy is not the source of power or the purpose of power but rather the procedures used to gain and retain power. This was popularised by Robert Dahl and has since become a global consensus. For Dahl, democracy consists of two elements – participation and contestation. In this context, a country is democratic if its leaders are selected through free, fair, and regular elections and its citizens are free to join associations of their choice, express themselves freely, and vote without coercion.

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