One person one vote: is that all? Do we need it?

Volume 14, Issue 1  | 
Published 03/07/2017
Jill Cottrell Ghai

Former university law teacher, and has a particular interest in human rights. She has been an adviser on several constitution making processes. She is also a director at Katiba Institute.


Yash Ghai is fond of saying—and he is not alone—‘The trouble with democracy is elections’.

International IDEA in Stockholm —the intergovernmental organisation with special expertise on elections—plans a seminar on ‘Does political participation need political parties and representation?’

Someone in the constitution drafting body in the Solomon Island says that ‘The problem is that the Constitution is all about the government and not about the people’.

Many of us look at voting in many countries and don’t like the result—whether it is electing Trump, or voting for Brexit in the UK referendum, there is much concern about ‘populism’. Yet elections and referendums are supposed to be about ‘the people ‘ (populus) making their choices, aren’t they?

Well - many years ago, a bridge over a major English highway carried the spray-painted message: ‘If voting changed anything, they wouldn’t allow it.’

And Kenyans approach their elections with apprehension: how many people will be killed (are already being killed)?  Most people don’t seem to care about good government, just about ‘our—my people’s—government’. And the very donors who tell us ‘Elections are really important’ are pretty frank in also implying ‘Peace is more important than ensuring the accurate reflection of the people’s will’.

There are some common things about these apparently random thoughts: most particularly that they seem to suggest some problems with democracy and especially with elections. Indeed, phrases like ‘crisis of democracy’ will net you many hits on Google!

This thing called ‘Populism’

Populism is a word that people find useful, but hard to define; ‘mushy’ or ‘fuzzy’ is how it is described. The core idea seems to be the right of ‘the people’ against ‘them’­—an elite (political, business and intellectual) seen as corrupt. That idea might seem to reflect what the Kenyan electorate thinks certainly of the political elite. But that elite has managed to convince that electorate that its fellow citizens are a greater threat, and even if they do not necessarily vote back the same individual, they cheerfully vote for a clone. The media don’t help either.

Populism, like ethnicity, is often a tool for manipulation. Is Trump not as much part of the elite as the people he rubbished?

A major characteristic of populism is often its exclusionary nature. Trump supporters exclude (recent and prospective) migrants (all are migrants of course, since the original inhabitants don’t figure).  The English Defence League (Brexit enthusiasts) is racist by name and nature. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a Hindu populist, for whom Muslims and Dalits (untouchables) don’t count. Some quote Trump: ‘the only important thing is the unification of the people— because the other people don't mean anything.’

Alternatives to elections?

Can we do without elections? It’s been suggested that Cuba does. In fact it does not. But there national MPs are nominated by nominations commissions, on the basis of proposals from local groups. For the actual election there is one candidate only for a constituency—but if the candidate gets under 50% of the vote (and there is usually a high turn-out), the seat probably remains vacant. No party – including the ruling party, the only one that matters – may campaign. The President is elected by the National Assembly. In fact the National Assembly rarely meets, but elects a 31 person Council of State that does most of the work of law-making.

Elections are not everything! Apparently it was not possible to rank Cuba in the World Happiness Index in 2015, but we can at least see that being ‘authoritarian’ — like Cuba — does not necessarily correlate with having a miserable existence.  Cuba was placed at 68 in the last Human Development Report (developed by the UN to show development in terms of quality of life rather than in Gross National Product), as opposed to Kenya’s 146. Life expectancy in Cuba is just under 80; Kenya’s just over 62. Actual years of schooling in Cuba are 11.8 as opposed to Kenya’s 6.3.

Between 1990 and 2015, Cuba’s Human Development Index (HDI) value increased by 14.6 percent—a remarkable achievement in the light of loss of support from the Soviet Union and US sanctions. Kenya, however did better: an increase of 17.3%.

The Human Development Report includes a Gender Inequality Index, and places Cuba at 62 out of 159 — Kenya was at position 135. There is some unreality to the Cuban figures on women in Parliament (48.9%). At least Kenya’s 20% of women are in a Parliament that has some real powers. Figures for maternal mortality are more impressive: For every 100,000 live births in Cuba, 39 women die from pregnancy related causes; for Kenya the figure given was 510.

But could Kenya become a country like Cuba, or even like Singapore? Singapore because people like to comment that 50 years ago its GDP was not so different from Kenya’s, yet now it is very high in the HDI (at 5th place with Denmark), although it is a ‘flawed Democracy’ at 70th place in the Democracy Index.  Kenya was at 92nd, with a regime characterised as ‘hybrid’ meaning ‘irregularities exist in elections regularly preventing them from being fair and free. These nations commonly have governments which apply pressure on political opponents, non-independent judiciaries, widespread corruption, harassment and pressure placed on the media, anaemic rule of law, and more pronounced faults than flawed democracies in the realms of underdeveloped political culture, low levels of participation in politics, and issues in the functioning of governance’.

Where we are really lacking

The reasons why we would find it hard to emulate Singapore’s, or even Cuba’s , HDI rating  are the same as why  our elections are violent. Those elections, like the large mass of the politicians who participate, are not really about believing in anything, or about wanting to achieve anything except one’s own benefit. Policy and ideology play very little part.  Kenyans even use the word ‘politics’ to mean something selfish and dirty — not about how the resources of society are distributed among the people but about how they are stolen by the elite.

Cuba and Singapore, in their now very different ways (their leaders were closer ideologically 50 years ago) have been driven by visions, by notions of just societies, even if not societies of freedoms like that of speech.  Imagine if Kenya were to give up elections, would we have a government that cared for the people? It would be like most other authoritarian societies: not only intolerant of dissent, like Cuba and even Singapore, but unjust, kleptocratic — and ineffective for development. Rather like our own past, in fact, when elections were meaningless charades.

My suspicion is that much populism also stems from a lack of ideology—even of ideas. A striking commonality between our ethnic politics and much populism is their negative natures. They’re not for anything, just against ‘them’. And populism, like Kenyan politics with its stress on ethnicity, is a sign of failure of politics. Not just in poorer countries. Clearly, wealthy countries in North America and Europe that have so many people feeling alienated from their systems have been failing in their politics. 

But the solution is not. I would suggest, to give up on politics and elections. There has been a great deal of discussion on this in the US: is Trump the product of too much democracy? Countries that have seen voting turnout drop, and a general disenchantment with politics, agonise over what to do: make it easier to vote, change electoral systems, somehow make voting more fun and less trouble.

One writer in the New York Times recently said, ‘Convincing alienated American citizens that their votes count must begin with empowering the city and county governments in which they have the greatest influence’. More democracy, not less. We have started in that direction with devolution. It has its ‘challenges’ but at this point it does seem to offer the best hope for transforming democracy.

Participation is a feature of our constitution that people respond to, but has yet to achieve anything like its full potential. But it is not viewed as substituting for electoral politics. That International IDEA seminar turns out to focus on how public participation in decision making can ‘enrich rather than … undermine democratic values and representative institutions’.

And Human Rights Watch says ‘We forget at our peril the demagogues of yesteryear… who claimed privileged insight into the majority’s interest but ended up crushing the individual. When populists treat rights as an obstacle to their vision of the majority will, it is only a matter of time before they turn on those who disagree with their agenda. The risk only heightens when populists attack the independence of the judiciary for upholding the rule of law—that is, for enforcing the limits on governmental conduct that rights impose’. We can say the same of ethnic manipulators. We have a good framework of rights, and we have a judiciary that is not perfect but is one of our best hopes for rights protection.

Devolution, participation and rights are all vital, but to enrich rather than to undermine democracy, as IDEA states. And democracy requires elections. The challenge is to make our electoral politics work. Believe it or not, without them things would be much worse.

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