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Wednesday 15 June 2011

Drawing Parallels Between Voting in Kenya and the UK

By Joyce Omuse

In May a referendum vote was held in the U.K. It was to determine whether or not there was to be a change in the way votes are tallied. The vote suffered a crushing defeat. The U.K. voters have spoken and they don’t want a change in the way votes are counted. One can’t help but wonder. Was the vote rejected on its merits or were personal perceptions and political manoeuvrings involved? There would have to be another referendum vote held to lay that question to rest.

How different the whole voting process is in the U.K. The polling station was opened from 7.00 a.m. to 10.00 p.m. There were no queues, no crowds, no police, and no campaign posters. Frankly it was a little anti-climactic. People would vote on their way to work, at lunchtime or go home rest and then take a stroll and vote. I don’t miss the michegas of Kenya at election time but I do wish there was a little excitement about it.

So what is this Alternative Vote (AV) ? No! It has nothing to do with the audio-visual vs. scart connection of a television’s visual feed. It is a different way of tallying the votes in a way that gives a clear majority in the race. Voters would rank their choices in order of preference on their ballots. Basically a voter would list the candidates in order of 1st, 2nd, 3rd choice etc. If the winner does not have a clear majority than the votes from the least popular candidate would be redistributed until one candidate had at least half of the remaining votes. Traditionally after the vote, the candidate with the most votes would be the winner. A system referred to as first-past-the-post. Just think of those long-legged Kenyan athletes, frustrating the efforts of other countries, crossing the ribbon at a marathon race and you’ve got the idea. So what would be the difference between the age-old first-past-the-post and AV? Well supporters of the AV vote have their reasons as do the other camp. But a big reason appears to be to put an end to tactical voting. Other opposers of the vote are extremist parties with controversial policies like the British National Party fondly known in some areas as the get-out party. They believe that British democracy is under threat from mass immigration, the European Union and Islamism. Suffice it to say they have many detractors. They also have many staunch supporters. The AV system would cost the BNP, as they would have reduced chances of appearing as a second or third choice on a ballot. If my mind was not made up as to the party I was going to vote for, and I was wavering between the Liberal Democratic Party and the Labour Party, it is very unlikely that I would have the BNP as a second or third choice.

When the British left Kenya after independence, we inherited wholesale a system of law, government, administration, education and a whole bag of other things. Including election procedures and practices. So in a way the U.K. is our political father. So since independence we have been doing as Daddy said. In the eighties and nineties, there were a lot of voices shouting that we had to be like the U.K. or the U.S. The implication being that these countries had their business together. The truth is that no one and nothing is perfect. We always have an opportunity to change what we are not happy with. So as elections go we are still doing as Daddy said. But administration has gone the other way and we are now going all American with counties, senators and governors. I hope the colours of our flag don’t change to red blue and white.

All this brings back Kenya’s referendum. I am sure everyone remembers the drama and chaos that accompanied Kenya’s referendum vote for a new constitution. Everybody from all walks of life down to school children knew what was going on. Everyone had an opinion or at least knew from whom to borrow one. But here in the U.K, there was barely a whisper about the AV referendum. Of course a lot was being discussed on the news and in parliament and discussion podia. But not in our unique Kenyan style, in buses, restaurants, markets and even churches. As Sonia, a fellow immigrant boards her red bus at Piccadilly, all she’s worried about is being on time to catch the tube to her cleaning job. Pay is by the hour, so if you are late you don’t get paid. She is also thankful that the nightmare of the harsh winter is over and summer promises to be early this year. The last thing on her mind is how votes are counted. I would bet good money that until I asked her how she was going to vote, Sonia would not even have known that such a vote was up. This apathy does not only exist with Sonia and her ilk. There are a lot of people who do not have the excuse of being immigrants as a reason for a perceived indifference.

In Kenya life is simple in so many ways. Praise God! You like a candidate, you vote for him or her. The success or failure of a candidate seems to have little to do with what party the candidate belongs to and what its policies are. The man (or woman) is the main attraction. Some candidates who enjoy the esteem of many voters have been known to use this popularity to gain entry to one party or another. The enticement they bring to the table being the large numbers of voters and popularity they would bring with them. Not so in the U.K. Apparently, over here, people vote for the party and not the individual. So you like this party, you vote for it with little regard to the person representing it. Now here’s the interesting part. There are people who would be staunch supporters of the Rugby party. But at the crucial moment would vote for the Football party because they know that the Rugby party had fewer supporters and no chance of winning! Let’s take a quick poll, how many years would you guess it would take for Kenyans’ voting practices to get to that level? Twenty, thirty, fifty years, more?

And now for a quick stroll down memory lane. Who can forget the infamous mlolongo voting system in 1988? All you, the voter had to do was show up at the polling station and form a queue behind a picture of your chosen candidate. Then a man with someone checking his counting would walk down the line counting loudly. ‘… thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, seventy!’ Some figures show that there was only a 32.5% voter turn out. What a surprise! But there was no referendum for that. Maybe there should have been. So far there have only been two referenda in Kenya. They were 15 years apart and both were about the constitution. Many issues in Kenya are raising eyebrows, heart rates and blood pressures. Do we dare hope there would be referenda to settle those issues?

It appears the world is in the age of the referendum. If your country wants to be progressive or appear so, hold a referendum.

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