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Kenyans’ support for democracy and rule of law offers hope despite electoral upheaval

- October 27, 2017

The day after an unprecedented presidential election rerun with a foregone conclusion, Kenya remains in uncharted waters.

Thursday’s controversial repeat vote may have signaled a second term for President Uhuru Kenyatta. But the country remains sharply divided and has not even begun to settle the emotions roused by the previous two tumultuous months, during which:

While rocky election periods are nothing new for Kenya, this campaign’s twists and turns would test the elasticity of any constitutional democracy. But Kenya has a robust base of support for democracy and the rule of law. According to Afrobarometer survey findings from October-November 2016, very early in the campaign season, two-thirds (67 percent) of Kenyans said democracy is preferable to any other form of government. Larger majorities rejected authoritarian systems such as one-party (77 percent) and military (91 percent) rule; supported elections as the best way to choose leaders (77 percent); and said good citizens should always vote in elections (89 percent). The August elections saw a turnout of almost 80 percent.

Similarly, most Kenyans respect the rule of law and expect their leaders to do likewise. Three-fourths (75 percent) said last year that the president must always obey the laws and the courts, even if he thinks they are wrong, as you can see in the figure below. Similar majorities endorsed the courts’ legitimacy in making decisions that people always have to abide by (71 percent) and said that in fact their president “never” or “rarely” ignores the country’s courts and laws (70 percent). In August, Kenyatta announced he would respect the Supreme Court’s ruling annulling his victory, but also called the court’s members “crooks.”

Respondents were asked:
Which of the following statements is closest to your view?
Statement 1: Since the president was elected to lead the country, he should not be bound by laws or court decisions that he thinks are wrong.
Statement 2: The president must always obey the laws and the courts, even if he thinks they are wrong.
In your opinion, how often, in this country, does the president ignore the courts and laws of this country?

Popular trust in the courts has declined. Those who said they trust the courts “somewhat” or “a lot” dropped from 62 percent in 2011 to 53 percent in 2016, though that was still higher than trust in the IEBC (38 percent). But these responses were collected before any of the campaign season’s events, including the swearing-in of new IEBC commissioners in January after opposition protests attacked their predecessors as biased and corrupt.

Over the years, this popular support for democracy and the rule of law has allowed Kenya to rebound from contested electioneering periods. For example, before this year’s chaos, Kenyans appeared to be approaching the election with increasingly positive feelings about their democracy — part of a slow recovery after post-election violence in 2008.

By 2016, almost two-thirds (63 percent) of Kenyans considered their country “a full democracy” or “a democracy with minor problems,” an improvement of 20 percentage points from responses in 2008 and 2011, as you can see in the figure below. Most (56 percent) were “fairly” or “very” satisfied with the way their democracy was working, up from 42 percent in 2008. And more than 6 in 10 (62 percent) considered the most recent national election (in 2013) completely or mostly free and fair — three times the proportion who held this view in 2008 (20 percent).

Respondents were asked:
In your opinion, how much of a democracy is Kenya today?
Overall, how satisfied are you with the way democracy works in Kenya?
On the whole, how would you rate the freeness and fairness of the last national election, held in [2002, 2007, and 2013]?

Six out of 10 Kenyans also believed freedom was expanding in their country. Compared to “a few years ago,” 61 percent said opposition parties or candidates now have more freedom to hold rallies, state their views, or criticize the government; 60 percent said people feel freer to say what they think. The recent tumult itself has somewhat confirmed these perceptions, as both ruling and opposition party supporters have used all sorts of media channels to shout out their ideas.

No doubt this season’s events are a serious setback. But the Kenyan people’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law suggests that, given time and good faith effort, the nation’s democracy will rebound.

This post is part of our Fall Friday Afrobarometer series, which highlights findings from the Pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public-attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa. Read more in the series.

Winnie V. Mitullah is director of the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) of the University of Nairobi and lead national investigator for Afrobarometer in Kenya. 

Abel Oyuke is Afrobarometer project manager for East Africa at the Institute for Development Studies of the University of Nairobi.