How odd smorgasbord of alliances led to voter apathy in Kenya

The scene at the main gate of the main Ruiru Social Hall polling station in Ruiru constituency, Kiambu county.

The scene at the main gate of the main Ruiru Social Hall polling station in Ruiru constituency, Kiambu county on August 9, 2022.

Photo credit: John Muchucha | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • All across social media, the low voter turnout, especially in Central Kenya, is the hue-and-cry across the land. 
  • Elections Observer Group (Elog) supervisor Gloria Onyango, who has been at the Mirema Polling Centre in Kasarani Constituency since dawn termed the voter turnout as lacklustre at best, and outright apathetic at worst.

The first video of ‘voter apathy’ in today’s elections to go viral was on Citizen Digital and was shot at a polling station in Ruiru at 9.30 am.

In it, a bored security guard mops his brow as a cockerel crows; then it cuts to an election supervisor instructing a pentagon of Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) clerks petrified by boredom – for the six coloured ballot boxes, for the six different elective positions on offer, are thus far as empty as the day is long.

In the corridor, agents of the different candidates sit idly. There is not a single voter at the booth. Outside, there is a noticeboard that says “samples of correctly marked ballot papers”.

But there is nobody in sight to notice the board.

The late-rising cockerel has already crowed twice (in the course of the 24-second video).

Perhaps if it were to crow for a third time, like Peter’s cock in the Bible, the gospel that politicians on both sides of the political divide have been making about mobilising high voter turnout, especially in the Mount Kenya region, will finally materialise in last-minute crowds?

Six hours later, speaking to Elections Observer Group (Elog) supervisor Gloria Onyango, who has been at the Mirema Polling Centre in Kasarani Constituency since dawn, the voter turnout is lacklustre at best, and outright apathetic at worst.

“At our polling station number six,” she says by way of example, “we have 669 registered voters, but so far (with only an hour and a half to go to the close of the polls), less than 300 of them have turned up (to vote).”

Dismal turnout

All across social media, the low voter turnout, especially in Central Kenya, is the hue-and-cry across the land. 

But what is the cause of this dismal turnout, especially in the Mount Kenya region? 

Could it be that the smorgasbord, or ‘mashakura’ mix of both the Kenya Kwanza alliance, as well as the coalition cocktail that is Azimio la Umoja, with all their mixed messaging – from where yesteryear’s ‘mganga’ is now the ‘messiah’, and another one who seems entitled to their vote through a ‘kumi yako, kumi yangu’ declaration – has created so much voter confusion, that the common mwananchi sits out this count? 

Political parties are created to act according to the interests of their dominant members but usually serve some other quite opposite purpose than that intended by the statutory act. 

An amusing aside to demonstrate this in part: In 1932, the Afghans, who were not members of the League of Nations, attended the Disarmament Conference of 1932.

Their aim was not to make speeches against war, and in favour of disarmament; they were at the party because they were short of arms, and thought a global Disarmament Conference was the best place to pick weapons at basement bargain or front yard sale cost -- the way neighbours may attend a departing expatriate’s furniture sale, to pick up quality pieces at prices friendly to the pocket.

So while Kenyans often vote ‘six-piece suit’ with the intention that the losing party’s members mark their opposite number in the political field during the five years before the next election, our democracy isn’t a game of football, like the Kenya Premier League.

Wanjiku may wish political parties to act as though she can rely on them to restrain each other, in order to avoid the worst excesses of democracy under a de facto one-party state – but as John Adams put it: “Passion, interests and power … can only be resisted by passion, interests and power”, (and Wanjiku is powerless!).

National interest

Edmund Burke’s famous definition that a political party is a “body of men united for promoting by their just endeavours the national interest upon some particular interests in which they are all agreed”, is obviously not applicable to the political parties smorgasbord of multi-party Kenya of 2022 (although it may have briefly applied in a tiny window of our national life in the mid-1960s, just before Kadu agreed to collapse itself like a block of cards, and enjoined itself to Kanu party).

The national interest is always the purpose of our political parties, and their ‘particular principle’ in which all are greedily agreed is this -- the pursuit of power! -- even if they have to dine with the Devil himself while carrying short spoons. Otherwise, if not invited to supper – or as the late MP Martin Shikuku dubbed it, “to eat ugali at State House at midnight” – then we may amend, albeit a bit cynically, Burke’s definition to read ‘a political party (in Kenya) is a body of men/women, united in its opposition to other parties that are not a party to its parties”.

Yet the feeling of belonging to a particular (political) party is important in our day-to-day democracy.

If the voter’s party wins the election, she believes that the government is, to a large extent, “her government”, especially if the victorious party also happens to be led by a member of her tribe.  

And if his/her party loses, s/he still has the comfortable feeling of being one of several million Voting Unfortunates, and hopes for better luck in the next election, five years yonder over the horizon.

But with a cluster of many political parties with shifting combinations as they make power plays, disengage from the super alliances that the voter voted for, and more bizarrely, engage in power-sharing formulae with the ‘enemy’ party, Wanjiku becomes numb! 

If she voted for the winning party, she surely cannot feel that the new ‘enemy’ elements being welcomed into it are ‘her’ government anymore.

Meanwhile, Otieno, who voted for the losing political party, feels betrayed by the compromise.

The crucial party manoeuvres are being performed above their heads, and once the party has lost the voter’s mind, the heart soon follows, even as the leg no longer knows where to go – resulting in voter apathy (which is dangerous to any democracy) as Wanjiku becomes disengaged from the whole political process, and decides to sit home and make waru on Election Day. It is “for them, wanachama, not for us, the common mwananchi,’ they mutter in their distress.

‘The Constitution of this country,’ (later Lord) Canning told his Liverpool Constituents in 1878, ‘is manually controlled by two assemblies; they are hereditary and independent of the Crown and the People; the other elected by and for the people, but elected for the purpose of controlling, instead of administering the government’.

Monarchial government

If you fast forward this paragraph almost a quarter a millennium from then, and from the city of Liverpool to the Mount Kenya region, and look at it in the context of our current state of politics, one would arrive at a few inescapable conclusions: First, our government is monarchial, and the Executive operates in a monarchial manner. Political parties in our Parliament do not govern, and nowadays seldom even check the state on behalf of We, the governed, as should happen in a proper democracy. 

The leaders of the parties do the governing, and in some cases, make all the major decisions on alliances and running mates by themselves. 

The alliances are now formed from entrants/entrails of all political parties across the nation, not for any ideological (or now even tribal) purpose, but for the predilection and the pure appetite for power -- now at the very core of the self-purpose of political parties (in Kenya). 

This led to initiatives like “Free Kenya” before their major players were also swallowed into the political coalition.

The means which a ‘Katiba’ provides, or fails to provide, for the constitution of political party alliances and coalitions supplies a more reliable guide to the nature of a country’s politics (and its political parties) than any legal classification of the form of government.

The electorate fixes the broad limits of our democracy through its odd vote, but governments are formed and changed by shifts, traits, tricks, tactics, political gambling (and sometimes outright sabotage) within and without the political parties, and no longer by the votes of the electorate.

By the time the alliance or coalition settles in stone, a few weeks before the General Election, Wanjiku in Ruiru, who has long lost her sense of political identity, has learned the lesson of ‘loose politics’; and would rather stay at home and peel potatoes, than put on a leso to go and vote for folks who, a month later, may become the “best of frenemies”.


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