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A Kenyan Yes vote should be met with cautious pessimism



Dr Patrick Basham

London (4 Aug) – The democratic bar is so low in Kenyan electoral politics that ‘the overriding goal of today’s referendum on a new constitution should be, first and foremost, a transparent vote followed by peaceful acceptance of the result by both sides regardless of the outcome’, according to Dr Patrick Basham, a former adviser to Kenyan presidential candidates and political parties, who has written widely in the East African press about Kenyan politics.

Although much rides – in both institutional and policy terms – on the outcome, according to Dr Basham, ‘Kenya’s fragile democracy is threatened far more by a violently disputed result than whether or not President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga’s Yes side achieves the overwhelming majority that polls suggest is within their grasp’.

On paper, there is much to recommend the proposed constitution, including a significant reduction in presidential power; a new Senate (with political teeth); the drastic culling of the federal cabinet; a land repossession commission; and the right of citizens to recall their elected representatives.

Dr Basham cautions, however, ‘the history of East Africa, including Kenya, is that frequently constitutional principles and guarantees aren’t worth the paper they’re written on’. ‘The bottom line’, says Dr Basham, ‘is corruption and tribalism usually trump liberal democratic principles, as the world witnessed so vividly following the last Kenyan presidential election’.
Therefore, he recommends that, if a Yes vote occurs, ‘both inside and outside Kenya the result be met with cautious pessimism’.

Dr Basham states that, while a peaceful aftermath to the referendum will give Kenyans grounds for optimism, ‘a tribally-riven society that a mere 30 months ago slaughtered 1,500 of its own people will need to demonstrate repeatedly its willingness to abide by both the letter and the spirit of the new constitution, if Kenya is not to become a “lost democracy” in the eyes of the international community’.

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