Kenya Repeat Polls Boycott: Boon or Bane?

Published on 24th October 2017

The idea of democracy simply means rule of the people.  It is a term that originated in ancient Greece to designate a government where the citizens collectively share in directing the activities of the state. It is an antithesis to government controlled by a single class, select group, or autocrat.

Ideally, democracy provides a platform where varying ideologies, vision and programs can be articulated to the voters in a civilized manner. Voters then decide by voting in personalities who embody their aspirations, ambitions and dreams. Democracy places a high value on the equality of individual citizens and demands that the citizens be free from coercion. Should nay restraint be necessary, it should be done by the consent of the majority and conform to the principle of equality. In summary, voting as a fraction of the concept of democracy is fundamental and quintessential. It is one of the most dramatic and accessible equality conferring aspects of political participation.

The idea of democracy has been expanded and is presently conceived to entail the right and the capacity of a people, acting either directly or through representatives, to control their institutions for their own purposes.  The process of voting is one aspect of democracy through which citizens act directly and the outcome is indirect representation, for instance, legislators or President. 

The right to vote and the right for the vote to count is our greatest privilege and responsibility. From the struggle for independence, the clamour for multipartyism to amending of the constitution, Kenyans have fought too hard and too long for this valuable right to be wasted. The best way to say thank you to those who risked their lives is to stand up and make sure  that your vote counts.

While ordinarily, in an election, the voters’ central dilemma is usually deciding on which candidate to vote for,  in Kenya’s upcoming October 26 repeat presidential elections, voters are in a dilemma of deciding whether to even vote at all. In other words, in the event that the fresh presidential election proceeds as scheduled, will the integrity of the outcome be determined by how voters’ responded to boycott elections or not to boycott? If voting is sine qua non and fundamental right in a democratic process, then why would an individual, or group, choose to forgo a chance at participating in elections? Why stifle one’s own voice?

Voting is as sacred as a civic action. One of the competitors in Kenya’s coming repeat election, President Uhuru Kenyatta, has argued that voting is the only constitutionally valid option in the leadership succession. He further argues that voting will move Kenya forward, give it stability and strengthen the country’s democracy. There are millions of people around the world who never get the opportunity to choose between choices that are less than ideal. Opposition leader Raila Odinga advocates for a boycott based on the fact the whole repeat presidential election is discriminatory and predetermined. He argues that not voting is a choice. He believes that the repeat presidential election will not produce any worthwhile and fair results.

Considering the foregoing, we must then ask: what role does an election boycott play in a democracy? What, in other words, justifies opting out of the democratic process? Election boycotts could have a role to play in a democracy that is not functioning as it should be and where fair competition is impossible. However, the problem lies in determining at what point conditions for a fair election are being violated to such an extent that a boycott is justifiable. By and large, even if justifiable, boycott should be considered as a last resort. This is because, at the very least, boycotting election gives the disaffected a chance to humiliate those presiding over sham election. That is why dictatorships are so obsessed with large elections, and force people to ‘vote’ in meaningless elections.

Election boycott is about denying the legitimacy, but it does not affect the final result of the election. Besides, the right to vote falls both in category of negative and positive rights. Negative rights require that no one should interfere as you enjoy your right while positive rights require that others do something to enable your enjoyment of your claim. In that perspective, the right to vote requires that a voter is left alone to exercise the right which includes not voting. At the same time, the government agency such as the electoral body is constitutionally and legally mandated  to enable a voter’s enjoyment of the right to vote. Hence, in countries where participation in voting is optional or voluntary, zero is a vote as long as the government agency meets its legal and constitutional obligation to provide for your enjoyment of the right!

But, in public leadership, legitimacy is as important as oxygen is to living organisms and its denial has similar consequence albeit in the long run. Suppose the October 26 repeat election has a predetermined winner, and all well meaning Kenyans vote, the ‘cheaters’ in the election will be that much stronger.  They will turn around and say, “See, there was a democratic vote and our candidate won.” And it will be that much harder to prove to the court of public opinion, domestically and internationally, that the election was stolen, especially if there is a large turnout, people vote peaceful and all on the face process go as would be expected.

Nonetheless, choosing to be outside the electoral process is a highly risky political tactic and can come with high costs. Historically their impacts are often minimal and can be managed by the incumbent government unless the boycott is accompanied by other measures which hinder the ability to govern. Besides there is also a very real danger that resorting to a boycott and street protests can have a long term and damaging effect on the democratic process.

By George Nyongesa

Bunge la Mwananchi.

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