Sunday, October 28, 2012

Lessons from the American electoral process

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 28 October 2012

The American political system is far from perfect, and suffers from many of the same problems our own system consistently throws at us. It is entirely conceivable that in their upcoming election, many Americans have already made up their minds to vote for a person whose ethnic background is similar to their own. There is little any one can do about that.

But that is as far as any similarity between the American and Kenyan political systems goes. The contrast becomes very stark after this.

First, the vast majority of Americans are agreed that if their candidate does not win the election, the world will not necessarily come to an end, and there will be an opportunity to get their favourite candidate elected at the next election. In Kenya, we have invested so much emotionally in political aspirants that in ego terms, there does not seem to be a boundary between the individual supporter and his favourite candidate.

The result, of course, is that whenever anyone denigrates the politician’s position on any issue, it comes out as though it is a personal attack on the supporters. The outcome, as obviously expected, is a catastrophic hysterical reaction that often ends in open conflict between opposing camps.

Second, despite the apparent gulf in their positions on various issues, the American candidates have maintained a healthy respect for each other, with no insults or intemperate language flowing between them. 

Debate vigorously

They are able to sit in the same room, debate vigorously and sometimes very roughly, but in the end they shake hands and say nice things about each other.

Third, the candidates have stuck to attempting to demonstrate real differences in their policy proposals, instead of engaging in personal attacks. Even in areas where an objective observer would notice similarities, such as in foreign policy, the candidates continued to show how they would do things differently from each other.

If our politicians want a peaceful country to govern after next year’s General Election, there are several things they will do as a matter of urgency.

One, they will make it clear to their supporters that there is a very real chance that they may not win the election, and that in any case the margin between the winner and the others may be razor-thin. They will then tell their supporters in no uncertain terms that they will not be associated with violence, and will in fact denounce anyone engaging in violence in the candidate’s name.

Two, they will run an issue-based campaign, clearly indicating their planned policy initiatives in health, education, security and infrastructure. They will canvass their positions on trade, agriculture and social issues such as family, religious freedoms and immigration. They will demonstrate to Kenyans how progressive their positions are, and how they will benefit the country should they win the election.

Finally, the candidates will maintain respect for each other, and use wholesome language when referring to their opponents. Using derogatory language in reference to their opponents will be avoided and punished by public condemnation. Calling their opponents snakes, horses or donkeys will be avoided, keeping in mind the amount of emotional investment and lack of ego boundaries among the supporters.

This way, we shall have a government that is committed to the welfare of all Kenyans after March 2013. 

Dr Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Associaton and a senior lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine; twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

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