Development vs security: How ethnic and issue-based politics are intertwined

A resident of Kisumu County casts her ballot at Ratta Primary School in the August 8, 2017 General Election. It is common to refer to Kenyan politics as ethnic. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • It is common for voters to support leaders who look capable, have some status and a record of delivering.
  • Much emphasis is placed in Kenyan politics on a leaders’ capacity to bring development and other resources to the local level.

It is common to refer to Kenyan politics as ethnic.

Certainly, politicians have to mobilise support amongst co-ethnics before they can realistically build broader cross-ethnic alliances, while successive elections reveal strong ethnic voting patterns particularly for those with co-ethnics running in the race.

However, the idea that, as a result, elections are a mere ethnic census — whereby people simply vote for leaders on the basis of their shared ethnic identity and give little thought to issue or performance-related evaluations — misunderstands how politics works.

At one level, the idea of an ethnic census is clearly problematic given that, in most local level races, voters face a choice between multiple co-ethnics.

VOTERS

In such contexts, people cannot simply vote along ethnic lines and need to decide — perhaps on the basis of sub-group identity, but also on past performance, character evaluations, party affiliation, manifesto pledges and so forth — who is most likely to protect and promote their interests.

At the same time, the majority of voters do not have co-ethnics standing in the presidential race, or at least those who look like they have any chance of winning.

In turn, most voters need to decide who out of the competitive candidates is likely to do the best job.

At another level, various factors render any clear juxtaposition between ethnic identity and issue or performance-based considerations inherently problematic.

DEVELOPMENT
First, it is common for voters to support leaders who look capable, have some status and a record of delivering.

But it is also common for people to be drawn to leaders who look like they really understand their day-to-day realities and thus to individuals from their area who can speak comfortably in vernacular and so forth.

Second, much emphasis is placed in Kenyan politics on a leaders’ capacity to bring development and other resources to the local level, and to simultaneously promote and defend local interests.

However, the close association between ethnic groups and particular parts of the country, means that the location of a development project or the stance that a politician takes on a particular issue, can often be seen to favour or disadvantage particular groups.

RESOURCES
At the same time, certain issues are simply more important in some areas, and thus for some communities, than in others.

Be it the price of fertiliser in agricultural areas, the formula for sharing oil revenue in Turkana, or port upgrading at the Coast.

Together with a history of State bias, this association of particular communities with geographic areas and issues means that certain policies have come to be seen as in or against collective ethnic interests.

In this way, devolution and more radical redistributive politics have long appealed to communities who view themselves as having been historically marginalised, while large development projects and meritocratic trickle-down economics tend to appeal more to those who have been historically closer to economic and political power.

CAMPAIGNS
At the same time, perceptions that leaders are likely to continue to favour co-ethnics means many believe it is important to have one of ‘your own’ in power if you are to benefit from State largesse, and simultaneously fear potential marginalisation if ‘their’ leader is out of power.

Finally, the logic of modern campaigns, whereby support is often mobilised both behind a candidate and against his or her main competitor, also creates a situation in which it becomes incredibly difficult to support candidates who appear to be in direct competition with your ‘own’ ethnic spokesman.

For example, many young, underemployed residents of central Kenya may be drawn to radical opposition politics but be put off by a sense that calls for redistribution that may not only affect the political and economic elite but their own home areas, and thus their own self-interests.

UNCERTAINTY
Together, these factors encourage a twin logic whereby many Kenyans support co-ethnics because they believe — on the basis of past performance, expectations of future behaviour and policy preferences — that these leaders are best placed to defend and promote their interests, and often fear what will happen if an ‘other’ gets into power.

The implication is that ethnic voting patterns are far from a mere census or product of limited education.

Instead, they are the product of complex and emotionally-laden, but simultaneously rational, calculations of the political system as perceived.

Gabrielle Lynch is a Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Warwick, UK ([email protected]; @GabrielleLynch6)

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