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Kenya’s democracy needs more than campaigns to end vote-buying

Voters attending rallies often expect to receive T-shirts, small amounts of money or other gifts

- August 4, 2022

As Kenya’s Aug. 9 presidential election approaches, observers have warned against vote-buying — when candidates exchange money or gifts in return for votes. Kenyan journalist Oscar Ochieng wrote, “Elections should not be about selling votes to [the] highest bidder.” Another journalist, John Mwazemba, encouraged Kenyans to “shun the culture of asking for or accepting money from politicians in exchange for our votes.”

Kenya has a long history of vote-buying. Calls to change that also aim to fight corruption and strengthen democracy — but the link between vote-buying and accountability is somewhat complicated. Our research suggests that different communities respond differently to election handouts.

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How does vote-buying work, exactly?

In Kenya, candidates often hire vote mobilizers, many of whom are unemployed youths, to draw large crowds to their campaign rallies. Voters flock to these rallies, where they expect to receive “something small” — from cold drinks, food and T-shirts, to 200-shilling notes (about 17 cents). These practices are so widespread that one government minister recently complained that vote-buying has led to a shortage of small bank notes.

Kenya’s campaigns against vote-buying reflect the conventional wisdom that the practice leads to the election of poor leaders, fosters corruption, undermines service provision and impedes democracy.

When vote-buying is ubiquitous, campaign costs skyrocket and electoral competition plummets. Drawing large crowds and signaling a candidate’s viability all but requires handing out gifts. Indeed, many candidates report that voters tell them not to come to their areas empty-handed. Thus, campaign costs escalate — on average, it costs about $390,000 to run for a Senate seat in Kenya today. The cost factor deters many would-be candidates.

Vote-buying also undermines accountability. That’s because vote-buying is a quid pro quo exchange. Citizens’ relationships with politicians are predicated on the immediate trade of material benefits for votes — not representation, service provision and potential reelection. Consequently, it’s difficult for voters to hold politicians accountable, severing a key link in the democratic process.

High campaign costs and low accountability provide fertile ground for corruption. Politicians might skim from public coffers, for instance, both to recover costs of past elections and to prepare for future ones. Moreover, as election expert Thierry Uwamahoro explains, vote-buying rewards corruption. If politicians “see that buying off supporters worked during the election,” he points out, “what is to stop them from using that strategy in other areas of governance?”

How do voters view handouts?

The conventional wisdom about vote-buying is based on the assumption that all citizens see campaign handouts as a simple exchange for their votes. But do citizens believe that selling their vote closes off future service provision, such as improving their community’s access to health or education?

Our study of vote-buying and service provision in Kenya, Malawi and Zambia challenges that thinking — we found that not all communities treat campaign handouts the same way. In a 2019 Governance and Local Development Institute survey, we asked low-income respondents whether they have witnessed campaign handouts in their area and whether they think it’s morally acceptable to receive them.

In Malawi and Zambia, we also presented respondents with different scenarios: Candidates either distributed money or gifts or made no handouts during a campaign. We then asked whether respondents would vote for the candidate and expect the candidate to provide future services if elected. Finally, we asked questions about their community — including how much people know one another and whether they suffer from water or electricity shortages.

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We find two distinct types of communities, based on the extent to which people know one another. People in the first type of community — which we call less socially dense communities — are less likely to know one another but more likely to enjoy public services than those in the second type, the more socially dense communities. Indeed, 48 percent of the people in less socially dense communities say they do not have electricity, compared with 88 percent in communities with more dense social ties.

Importantly, citizens in these communities respond very differently to election handouts. In less socially dense communities, voters view electoral handouts as vote-buying — and they believe the candidate who provides electoral handouts will be less likely to provide services than the candidate who does not give handouts. These voters are already less likely to support vote-buying candidates.

In socially dense communities, poor voters believe none of the candidates will provide services, regardless of whether they engage in vote-buying. So why not accept handouts, and even vote for the candidates who give them?

Our study suggests that poor voters in socially dense communities do just that. They are more likely than people in less dense communities to say that they would vote for candidates who provide monetary handouts and less likely to see vote-selling as immoral. They expect that their choices make no difference to their community’s future welfare.

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Can Kenya break this cycle?

Our findings suggest campaigns against vote-buying may not offer an effective way to fight corruption and strengthen democracy. Citizens in less socially dense communities — where they can expect that clean candidates will serve them better in the future — already eschew vote-buying and the candidates who engage in it. Those in more socially dense communities — where public services are limited — are not swayed by persuasion campaigns. In their eyes, eliminating vote-buying simply leaves politicians richer and voters poorer. Countering vote-buying, fighting corruption and strengthening democracy thus depends more on fostering responsiveness and providing services than ending vote-buying.

Those who seek to strengthen democracy and accountability may be more successful by focusing on improving politicians’ responsiveness — especially about public services — in marginalized areas. Time and money may be better spent on parliamentary watchdog groups, non-electoral incentives to foster projects in marginalized areas, and mandatory office hours for constituent services. Such efforts can raise performance, increase citizens’ expectations of politicians and improve candidates’ credibility, enhancing democracy in the long run in Kenya and elsewhere.

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Prisca Jöst is a postdoctoral researcher at the Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality” at the University of Konstanz and associate at the Governance and Local Development Institute.

Ellen Lust is a professor of political science and the founding director of the Governance and Local Development Institute at the University of Gothenburg. The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of the Swedish Research Council and FORMAS.