There is no victor of a flawed election

Monday, February 4th, 2008

The tragedy unfolding in Kenya is a reminder of the fact that a flawed election leaves the “winner” worse off than he would be losing a fair contest.

Whoever is President at the conclusion of this increasingly nasty standoff inherits an economy that is wounded, a parliament that is angry and divided, and a populace that know their will has been disregarded. And he will face a much increased risk of personal harm at the hands of those who see assassination as no worse a crime than electoral fraud. That is at best a Pyrrhic victory. It will be extremely difficult to get anything done under those circumstances.

There is, however, some cause for optimism amidst all the gloom. It seems that many Kenyan MP’s who were fingered for corruption during their previous terms were summarily dismissed by their constituencies, despite tribal affiliations. In other words, if your constituents think you’re a crook, they will vote you out even if you share their ethnicity.

That shows the beginnings of independent-minded political accountability – it shows that voting citizens in Kenya want leaders who are not tainted with corruption, even if that means giving someone from a different tribe their vote. And that is the key shift that is needed in African countries, to give democracy teeth. Ousted MP’s and former presidents are subject to investigation and trial, and no amount of ill-gotten loot in the bank is worth the indignity of a stint in jail at the hands of your successor. As Frederick Chiluba has learned, there’s no such thing as an easy retirement from a corrupt administration.

Of course, that makes it likely that those with skeletons in their closets will try even harder to cling to power, for fear of the consequences if they lose their grip on it. Robert Mugabe is no doubt of the opinion that a bitter time in power is preferable to a bitter time after power. But increasingly, voters in Africa are learning that they really can vote for change. And neighboring countries are learning that it hurts their own investment and economic profiles to certify elections as free and fair when they are far from it. It would be much harder for Robert Mugabe to stay in power illegally if he didn’t have *nearly* enough votes to stay there legally. You can fudge an election a little, but it’s very difficult to fudge it when the whole electorate abandons you, and when nobody will lend your their credibility.

The best hope a current president has of a happy retirement is to ensure that the institutions which will pass judgement on him (or her) in future are independent and competent, to ensure that they will stay that way, and to keep their hands clean. It will take time, but I think we are on track to see healthy changes in governance becoming the norm and not the exception in Africa.