It took less than an hour for the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi to fill up to the last seat.
Nearly 60,000 Kenyans came to greet their newly installed President, Dr. William Ruto to cheer after a close race against former Prime Minister Raila Odingo.
In a nation that has weathered post-election violence several times since independence, why was there such a palpable sense of peace and national unity, despite the fault lines drawn by yet another belligerent campaign?
And what does that have to do with America and other democracies around the world? Well actually everything.
I was recently in Kenya and spoke to many people about the election.
First a little story. After declaring independence from Britain in 1963, Kenya elected its first of today’s five presidents. Jomo Kenyatta, sentenced to seven years in hard labor for an anti-colonial rebellion he openly condemned, became the first indigenous advocate to lead his nation.
Years later, election-related violence marred the re-election of Kenya’s third president, Mwai Kibaki. Despite election-day polls suggesting he would lose heavily, Kibaki somehow found enough votes to claim victory before pledged himself back to office an hour after being declared the winner.
As a result, more than a thousand Kenyans were killed and 600,000 left homeless before a plurinational effort led by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan negotiated a coalition government to put the shattered pieces of democracy back together.
Ten years later, following the re-election of Jomo Kenyatta’s son Uhuru in 2017, more violence erupted, including the death of a nine-year-old girl caught in the crossfire between police and protesters.
Fast forward to last month when Vice President William Ruto defeated Kenyatta-backed Raila Odingo by little more than a point amid allegations of fraud, bribery and intimidation. After three days of exhaustive witnessing, Kenya’s Supreme Court upheld the result and urged both sides to do better next time.
That’s because the Kenyans had passed the proverbial ‘choke point’. They were fed up with the violence and division. They wanted something better, clearer, more consistent.
They accomplished just that by implementing a more transparent, accessible voting system where the results were instantly shared directly with the public online, unfiltered by politicians who had a history of abusing democracy by manipulating the truth.
The Kenyans have opted for a system built on the pillar of trust.
In contrast, Americans have yet to make a choice. Instead, we tolerate elections that have fallen to the candidates and their supporters, in the belief that victory justifies an assault on democracy itself, a system built on the strands of trust that, when exhausted, weaken the state of the Union .
Public Opinion Strategies’ latest poll of America’s polarization is chock full of warning signs. Three big takeaways:
- Majority Says Government Is Corrupt And Manipulating Against ‘People Like Her’
- A majority fear civil war is “probable” in the coming decade
Kenyans met their threat by improving their voting system. America must do the same before fear becomes too ingrained in reality.
Make elections more open and transparent. Standardize voting systems to protect voter intent. Apply the best technology for the best purposes. Ensure ballot integrity by requiring voter ID. Punish anyone who knowingly continues fraud and illegality. Above all, if a choice proves stubborn, don’t demonize the challenges, instead investigate them quickly.
Americans have already reached their own “choking point” and must make a choice: breathe again, trust again — or rappel further down the slippery slope of civic discord and dissolution.
In front of a sea of supporters, President Ruto declared that the real winners of the recent elections were the people of Kenya. “We did well. We have paved the way in an increasingly challenging environment where democracy is under constant scrutiny.” Ruto spoke about connecting community and sharing common needs like jobs and food affordability.
Today, American democracy – and the freedom it brings – is being tested and will require the same kind of courage it took to overcome depression and disease, conflict and war; the kind that made heroes.
Kenyans survived a sometimes tumultuous past to gain a chance at a better future. Americans owe them a debt of gratitude. They reminded us that winning is not just about points on the election scorecards, but also maintaining the principle, courtesy and unity that ensure winning actually means something.
Adam Gutman, a Republican national media strategist and columnist, is the first Edward R. Murrow Senior Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. Follow him on Twitter @adamgoodman3