Power-sharing and democratization by elections in Kenya

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Commonwealth observer mission to Kenya 2017
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Power-sharing has long attracted attention of scholars studying democratization in Africa. It has been used in various contexts as a mechanism to bring together political opponents in order to establish peace and democratize countries that have suffered from internal conflicts and years of authoritarianism. As such, power-sharing agreements have become widely popular across Africa, often promoted by domestic political elites and international actors in times of crisis. But has power-sharing delivered on these promises, in particular with regard to democratization? And how should the allegedly democratizing effect of power-sharing be measured?

My recent publication with Michal Mochtak on “Power-sharing and Democratization in Africa” uses the case study of Kenya to highlight the dynamics of electoral reform and evaluates them in the context of political and legislative changes between 2008 and 2013.

The case of Kenya is particularly illuminating for a number of reasons. The East African country experienced a power-sharing government between 2008 and 2013 after the eruption of electoral violence in 2007/8. In order to overcome the political stalemate and to avoid a repeat of the violent events, the leaders from rival political camps, represented by Mwai Kibaki from the Party of National Unity (PNU) and Raila Odinga from the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), created a unity government which undertook to implement changes including an adoption of a new constitution. The unity government’s proclaimed effort was aimed at bringing the country to peace and paving the way to peaceful and democratic elections in 2013. This occurred under a revised electoral framework that was designed to avoid structural flaws that had hampered political stability for years.

Kenya and other African countries have shown that when it comes to the perspective of immediate peace, the reconciliatory effect of power-sharing has been vastly successful. Less agreement however exists when it comes to evaluating the impact of power-sharing on democratization. On the one hand, democracy together with peace are frequently declared as the central goals of power-sharing governments. On the other hand, critical voices emphasize that the relationship between power-sharing and democratization is far more complex and may be problematic.

One problem with this disagreement on a theoretical level is that the existing research largely omits the role of elections as a central institution of political transitions as illustrated by a number of African countries, among them Kenya.

The article published in JIRD approaches this issue from a novel perspective, examining the relationship between power-sharing and democratization through the lens of elections. This approach is embedded in the theory of democratization by elections articulated by Staffan Lindberg. In short, Lindberg asserts that elections are not merely an indicator of democratization as traditionally perceived but are, in fact, an important accelerating factor of the process (Lindberg, 2006). As later evidence suggests, the higher de facto quality of elections, the greater impact successive elections have on deepening democratic changes in the long run (Van Ham and Lindberg, 2018). Although the theory is not without criticism, it offers a novel perspective of approaching the issue, namely by examining the impact of power-sharing on the quality of elections and subsequently on the process of democratization.

In general, elections represent an institution whose changing quality can be relatively easily assessed by using the methodology developed by international election observation actors over the past decades. Moreover, elections provide a long-term comparative framework as they are held regularly and their changing quality can be studied over a long period of time and assessed along the progressing political transformation. When long-term electoral cycles take place in the background of significant yet episodic events, like time-limited power-sharing agreements, the quality of elections can serve as a benchmark to evaluate their impact on the process of democratization. This does not mean the quality of an election is necessarily the only variable affecting a country’s democratic performance. Rather, elections can serve as a convenient indicator for understanding much more complex processes.

In Kenya, elections have traditionally played an important role in framing interactions between key actors during political transitions. Since 1992 when multiparty elections were re-introduced, the country has seen elections with greater or lesser degrees of competitiveness and experienced one transfer of power via the ballot box. Arguably, one of the most significant drivers of the tensions between the most prominent leaders involved has been the framework governing the holding of elections, with opposition leaders campaigning for a more level political playing field. In 2007, for example, disputed elections were the central element of the political crisis and provided the context for the whole period of power-sharing. Later, the legislative framework for elections became a crucial agenda during the government’s term in office. It is therefore important to ask how the power-sharing government performed when it came to improving the electoral framework in the country.

To answer this question, the research examined six different areas of the quality of elections separately for 2008 and 2013. It then analyzes the impact of the government’s legislative actions on these areas. The findings show that election legislation was a very dynamic arena of government’s activity. Overall, the changes observed in 2013 were positive, rectifying some of the deficiencies present in 2008. However, while legislative areas regulating basic principles and institutional framework for elections experienced considerable improvement, those concerning more technical aspects of electoral competition improved only modestly or remained unchanged. Nevertheless, none of the areas that we assessed experienced a negative trend. This reveals that at the end of the power-sharing government in 2013, the electoral framework did a better job of facilitating free and fair elections than in 2008. This positive change can be clearly attributed to power-sharing as the government of national unity was the only actor responsible for the legislative changes.

More broadly, these findings confirm the utility of employing an elections-centered approach to studying the relationship between power-sharing and democratization. Power-sharing proved to have had a positive effect on the legislative framework for elections in Kenya. In turn, the improved legislative framework further enhanced the institutionalisation of elections, as existing theories would suggest. As a result, elections were more likely to regulate the interactions between rival leaders and parties in such a way as to reinforce the democratization process. However, given the controversy and instability that surrounded Kenya’s 2017 elections, one needs to keep in mind that progress towards democratization by elections can quickly be reversed.

We therefore need to place a tight focus on future electoral cycles and the impact of the government’s policies on the electoral framework in Kenya.

Adam Drnovsky holds the position of election observation officer at the Council of Europe and is currently pursuing a PhD in international human rights law at the Bundeswehr University Munich.

References

Drnovsky, Adam and Michal Mochtak (2020). “Power-sharing and Democratization in Africa: The Kenyan Experience“. Journal of International Relations and Development, 23 (3): 607-635.

Lindberg, Staffan I. (2006): Democracy and Elections in Africa. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. link

Van Ham, Carolien and Staffan I. Lindberg (2018): „Elections: The power of elections in multiparty Africa”. In: Cheeseman, Nic (eds.): Institutions and democracy in Africa: How the rules of the game shape political developments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 213-237. link

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