What the US can learn from Kenya’s fight for democracy

Last month we helped lead an international election observation mission to Kenya‘s presidential election, sponsored by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), on whose boards we serve. At the time of writing, William Ruto had narrowly ousted Raila Odinga, but challenges to the results are still being worked out in court.

While Kenya’s elections remain contentious, they are conducted through legal channels and the democratic achievements of the Kenyan people are clear. Kenya’s Supreme Court is due tomorrow to rule on petitions challenging the president’s election results.

Kenya has been a relative bastion of stability in a very difficult neighborhood. Surrounded by turmoil and one-man rule in Sudan and South Sudan, rampant terrorism in Somalia, civil war in Ethiopia and dictatorship in Uganda, Kenya’s commitment to elections and multi-party politics is an inspiration to its people, the region and the continent. It is also an inspiration to emerging democracies around the world.

Kenya’s next president faces daunting problems: a large young population with limited job opportunities, a crushing debt burden (encouraged by Chinese loans to fund major infrastructure projects), and pervasive corruption. Kenya’s democracy is far from perfect; Voter registration and turnout fell in 2022, and post-election violence in 2007 left over 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. The last presidential election in 2017 was annulled by the Supreme Court and had to be rerun. But despite these very real challenges, Kenyans voted and welcomed the opportunity to help shape their future.

International monitoring serves to strengthen global support for credible elections around the world. Recognizing that elections are a process, prior to our deployment, NDI and IRI conducted missions to Kenya in May and July to assess the election context and preparations for the elections. On the eve of the elections, we met with a variety of stakeholders, including leading presidential candidates, members of the Independent Electoral Commission and Supreme Court, civil society representatives, church groups, women’s organizations and independent citizen observers, who conducted a parallel vote table.

On Election Day, August 9th, we witnessed an impressive logistical endeavor involving over 46,000 polling stations in a country slightly larger than California and Florida combined. We saw staff working all night before the election to ensure polling stations opened on time. We saw long lines in Kibera, the part of the capital of Nairobi that is Africa’s largest slum, and throughout the region. Still, voters patiently waited for their identities to be verified before receiving their ballots and voting.

Kenya’s election had both the state-of-the-art real-time biometric voter identification of the 21st century, and old-style manual counting, where ballots were placed on makeshift tables for tabulation (manual hand counting) until late at night.

We have seen firsthand how women voted, as well as female candidates running for high office such as vice president and governor of their respective regions or constituencies. While female candidates faced harassment and threats of physical violence, Kenya elected a historic number of female governors, electing women to 26 parliamentary seats and three senate seats. Although almost half of the voters are women, the Kenyan government has never retained many women. The country is far from achieving the “two-thirds gender principle” enacted to increase the proportion of women in government.

Ruto championed a classic rags to riches story – a roadside chicken seller turned wealthy businessman and current Deputy President. His slogan “Every Hustle Matters” was intended to appeal to young Kenyans who depend on the huge informal economy. Odinga was a well-known asset to Kenyan voters, having served as prime minister and previously running for president four times. Odinga, who was repeatedly imprisoned without trial during the 1980s under the Moi dictatorship, was supported by the current President Kenyatta in place of Kenyatta’s former Vice President and Deputy President Ruto – a house of cards-like twist on the kind that has dominated Kenyan politics.

With so many challenges of its own, why is far-flung Kenya important to the US? It is the economic powerhouse of East Africa and anchors the western Indian Ocean, where China is increasingly flexing its muscles and expanding its military presence. In Kenya (and neighboring Tanzania), Osama bin Laden attacked the US, bombed our embassies in 1998 and killed 213 people in Nairobi (and 11 in Dar es Salaam). Kenya has been a staunch partner in countering Islamic extremism, serving as a diplomatic mediator in regional conflicts and providing a safe haven for refugees fleeing civil unrest, including Rwanda’s horrific 1994 genocide and the tragic ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo . Kenya has also been one of the most vocal critics of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As one of the most important countries on the dynamic African continent, Kenya’s political alignment and democratic stability are of major concern around the world.

As we have repeatedly said to our Kenyan counterparts, elections are about more than just winning – they are also about accepting defeat. We know that only too well from our own experience. Losing elections with grace and dignity after the votes have been counted and legitimate court actions exhausted is just as important as a level playing field, secret ballots and transparent vote counting.

Whatever the end result, the real winners of Kenya’s elections are the voters who had a say in choosing their leader. And the long-term winners are the citizens of every democracy on earth struggling to implement and maintain this most valuable and delicate of systems of government. This includes the United States.

Donna Brazile is a board member of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee. Randy Scheunemann is Executive Vice President of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Strategic Advisor to the Halifax International Security Forum. The views expressed are their own.

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