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messy democracy

Last week Kenyans went to the polls in the country’s much anticipated political party primaries. The rapidly approaching March 4 general elections will be Kenya’s first since the disputed 2007 presidential election plunged the country into horrific ethnic violence, leaving over a thousand people dead and displacing half a million others. The primaries were viewed by many as an important litmus test, a gauge of Kenya’s preparedness for peaceful, democratic transition.


In true Kenyan fashion, all of the major parties decided to hold their primary votes on the last possible day that was legally allowed, mainly to prevent losing candidates from party-hopping. Voters started queueing well before sunrise on Thursday, so they can be somewhat forgiven for growing irate when ballots still had not arrived in many polling stations by noon.

Kenyan politics continue to be dominated by tribal allegiance, which partially helps explain the chaos that unfolded. In parts of the country where one ethnic group predominates, winning the primary for the political party that represents that group all but assures aspirants victory in the general elections. As the day wore on, reports of malfeasance kept piling up. In some districts, ballots did not arrive at all. In others, they arrived with missing names, leading supporters of the aggrieved candidates to stage protests. In some parts of the country, the ballot boxes apparently arrived pre-stuffed with fraudulent votes, fueling the public outrage. Incensed voters destroyed ballot boxes, burned tires, closed down streets. In a few isolated incidents, they turned violent. One hapless polling official, who was accused of collusion to help elect a certain politician, was reportedly stripped naked and chased through the streets by an enraged mob.

If there is a silver lining to all of this is that Kenyans showed no tolerance for politicians who tried to manipulate the vote. The destroyed ballots and the widespread media coverage of the protests led the principal political parties to extend the primaries, including repeat voting in disputed districts. Hopefully, the flawed primaries will not be a precursor to more chaos when the voters go to the polls again in March.

We witnessed some of the extended voting on our drive north this weekend. Above: a group of Samburu, one of Kenya’s pastoralist tribes, lining up to cast their votes.

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