Without trust, politics is reduced to spectacle

People must believe in public institutions in order to believe in the promises of democracy. Take a Kenyan’s word on this.

Shortly after 9 PM on December 30, 2007, Mwai Kibaki held a Bible in his right hand and was sworn in for a third term as Kenya’s president. It was a hurried, late-night provocation that even the most authoritarian administrations had never before attempted. Just a few hours earlier, the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) had declared Kibaki the winner of the election held on December 27. The ECK did this knowing the opposition had accused the government of rigging the vote. In hindsight, the swearing-in was the culmination of events that constitute an inflection point for Kenya—one with lessons for any fragile democracy, but especially for the United States under President Donald Trump.

Election day had been marred by protest. Junior officers at the ECK had even gone on national television and radio to warn the public that the results were being manipulated. Then, in the early hours of the next morning, Kibaki suddenly and rapidly reversed a nearly 1 million-vote deficit against his main challenger, Raila Odinga. Some constituencies recorded voter turnouts of over 100 percent.

The opposition disputed the results, and the contest of wills between Kibaki and Odinga, the kingpins of the two major political camps, triggered protests and police crackdowns, which were followed by outbreaks of ethnic violence that killed more than 1,500 people and displaced hundreds of thousands over the next four months. Eventually, after regional and international intervention, Kibaki agreed to a coalition government, where he remained president.

I couldn’t help but think of Kenya’s 2007–08 political crisis this past week while witnessing the furor in the United States regarding the Postal Service, an institution so fundamental to public life that it is protected by the Constitution. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, the Postal Service is expected to receive, verify, and transmit more votes than ever. And like the ECK, the US Postal Service has been subject to a political assault. Removing sorting machines and mailboxes, and proposing major budget cuts so close to an election is an attack on the post office’s financial and structural health. If voters feel like they can’t trust a key democratic institution to deliver at a critical moment, the ramifications go far beyond this election cycle: They will cut to the heart of the United States as a political project.

In Kenya, we learned that when people lose trust in institutions, they opt out of the public sphere—sometimes violently, but other times with a slow disengagement that leaves the government vulnerable to takeover from those that crave power without responsibility. We also learned that it is essential to protect the institutions at the core of the electoral process. Analysts of African politics have spilled a great deal of ink over prospects of electoral violence, but endemic apathy is just as sinister. If people stop engaging with public institutions, life-or-death politics is reduced to spectacle.

This is the challenge facing Kenya today. Newspapers and television stations use politicians to garner attention but rarely interrogate their actual policies. Politics is fodder for bar banter, while the daily processes of representation are unresponsive. Bad people enter politics, and the government is the one arena where their actions are shielded from scrutiny. Good people are driven out, because the climate becomes intolerable. When it emerged during a pandemic that much of the funding for public health was stolen by senior government officials, no one had a clear sense of how to demand accountability from the institutions and politicians who have publicly affirmed their contempt. Kenyans still show up to vote, but often see the process of democracy as abstract performance art.

Going into 2007, the ECK had the public’s confidence, because it presided over the unexpectedly successful election of 2002. Until this point, a single party had governed Kenya for 40 years—the latter 24 years, that of the authoritarian Daniel Toroitich arap Moi. In 1988, the Kenyan Parliament officially ended one-party rule, but flagrant manipulation, intimidation, and assaults on opponents plagued the next two elections. At the time, analysts framed the widespread violence as the result of ethnic tensions, but we later learned that local and national politicians instigated attacks to depress voter turnout in opposition strongholds.

In 2002, amid protests and the violent suppression of government critics, no one expected the ECK to deliver a result against the president. Mightier institutions like the judiciary and the police had buckled under the weight of authoritarianism, and most people expected that Moi would find a way to either prolong his rule or hand over power to his chosen successor—Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s current president. So when Kenyatta conceded to Kibaki, it wasn’t just a win for the opposition. It was a win for the ECK and elections in Kenya more generally. It restored trust in democracy and the institutions that incubate it.

Thus the betrayal of 2007 was a betrayal of every inch of progress that Kenya’s democracy had made since 2002. It unraveled the goodwill extended, to not just the ECK but also all other aspects of the state.

After 2007, a new constitution disbanded ECK in favor of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). But rather than learn from the mistakes of the ECK, the IEBC compounded them, delivering to Kenyans two highly suspect elections in 2017. In fact, of all Kenya’s elections since 1992, only the 2002 election was untainted by violence or a serious legal challenge.

The latest fad in politics is to use technology to claw back public trust once it has been grossly abused, but in Kenya this has resulted only in costly and unwieldy elections. The first 2017 election in August was the second fully digital election in Africa. The process of casting a ballot was a three-month exercise in collecting the biometric data of almost 20 million eligible voters, verifying identities, establishing 4G towers in remote corners of the country, coordinating with three mobile phone companies, and vetting and hiring foreign tech companies to build the platforms, to name just a few of the complications. At the time, it was the most expensive election per capita in the world.

Three months later, the Supreme Court nullified the result. During the legal challenge, the IEBC’s lawyers couldn’t easily explain how the technology worked. The outcomes were so untrustworthy that Kenyans were back at the polls later that year. Meanwhile, Gambians voted out a 22-year-old autocracy using marbles. It’s not the technology; it’s the trust that people have in their institutions that sustains democracies.

Political scientists, especially those working in the quantitative traditions preferred in the United States, have a hard time dealing with the softer materials of democracy. We prefer to speak of things that can be measured and counted, and where the concepts are more nebulous like trust, confidence, and hope, we prefer to use proxy measurements that get close to the dynamic but don’t always capture the complete picture. We can analyze their erosion during a crisis or after the fact, but very few of us are comfortable predicting the disaster before it occurs. Our methods are usually retroactive.

So the best way we can help the public make sense of a challenge like that facing the United States is by analogies, either in history or across geographies. This is why the lessons of Kenya are important for those looking at the political developments in the US and elsewhere. We show how easy it is to lose public trust in institutions, and how it takes years of concerted effort to get it back. In the meantime, we’ve seen how the knock-on effects of narratives of institutional failure discourage people from participating.

Kenya demonstrates that technology can’t replace public trust. If you throw digital consultants at what is fundamentally a question of confidence, you end up with a Frankenstein’s monster of democratic institutions: cumbersome, expensive, ill-suited for its purpose, and shaped by business interests who have no stake in the outcome except profit. Take a Kenyan’s word on this.

It is not an overreaction to say that massive political cuts to the USPS could destabilize American democracy. People must believe that institutions will run the way they’re supposed to in order to believe in the bigger democratic promises. When political interests threaten public institutions, American must raise the alarm. During an election, it’s not always apparent how far and fast trust in institutions like the ECK will fall, but it becomes clear when people begin to stop participating of the formal institutions in individually imperceptible but cumulatively palpable ways—apathy, protest, or, in our worst-case scenario, violence.

This article was published by The Nation.

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