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A tale of two elections

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”

So begins Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, a book that was being taught when I was at school in Nairobi. I recalled these classic opening words when I was reflecting on the lessons of the two elections Kenyans have recently been emotionally engaged with: our awful Kenyan one in December last year; and this month’s historic poll in the USA.

There is often an air of hubris and arrogant dismissal of all things foreign in our ruling classes these days. And so, when our country was going up in flames in January 2008, we were often told that this was nothing unusual; that many advanced countries hold flawed elections. The most notable example being touted around was that of George W. Bush’s controversial “hanging chads” win over Al Gore in 2000.

Well, that’s not an example that springs to many a Kenyan leader’s lip these days. Not after we have all witnessed a near-flawless example of the electoral process in America. So let us stop to compare and contrast the two polls.

Let’s start with the parties fighting it out. America had the two parties it has had for as long as anyone can remember: the Democrats and the Republicans. These parties had established constitutions, long-standing ideological positions, and a complete institutional framework.

Kenya had three parties that had not even been in existence a year or two earlier. These were not ‘parties’ in any sense other than that they were set up for some people to have a good time; they had no rules, no regulations, no procedures; their only known ideology was to say whatever it took to get elected.

Let’s move on to the candidates. In America, both parties put a number of candidates through a rigorous primary election process. The test of whether a candidate was right for the country was left to the country. In Kenya, the presidential candidates were selected by a process of shouting and clapping in stage-managed gatherings. That is how it has always been. Those who promise others the earth get to stand.

Let’s look at the campaigning. Both countries saw the rise of hate messages and fear-mongering in an attempt to sway the electorate. In America the ploy failed; in Kenya it succeeded big time. Americans managed to vote across race, ideology and comfort zone; Kenyans voted tribe. This was true for Kenya’s educated elite as much as it was for the unwashed masses.

Kenya’s campaigns and their aftermath led to over a thousand deaths and hundreds of thousands of displaced people. They caused mayhem, burnings, rapes and massacres. In America, I have yet to hear of a single death or injury that was related to the election.

And finally the electoral process. Kenyans voted in large numbers, and so did Americans. America’s results were tabulated efficiently and released to the media as they were finalised. A clear winner in the presidential race was known to all very early in the proceedings. In Kenya, the counting and tallying was an utter disgrace: inept, chaotic and marred by violence. We are told, 11 months later, that we may never know who actually won.

In America, the electoral body worked efficiently and effectively, with competent staff and excellent technology – and stayed in the background. Can any of us name that body or its leader? Not important. Here, the Electoral Commission of Kenya and its hapless leadership entered all our nightmares for months. And, despite presiding over the sort of fiasco that would make a clown resign from a circus, is still in situ and fighting all attempts to disband it.

In America, the loser knew he had lost and made a gracious concession speech. The winner knew he had won and made a sombre acceptance speech, emphasising that the work had only just begun. An orderly and professional transition process commenced. In Kenya, the only speeches made were of hatred and division, and a solution was only found when the rest of the world pointed a gun at our heads.

What do we want to learn from all this, Kenyans? In this tale of two elections, one society has shown that it values ideas, innovation, order and institutions; the other that it is stuck in a time-warp of mistrust and mismanagement. I am no apologist for the USA. But in democratic terms, we are light-years behind. It behoves us to accept our shortcomings and learn what we must about how to hold elections. In this Dickensian tale of two elections, our failures were local and our hopes were vested far away.

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