Voter Apathy – the unused voices of democracy
Who is to blame when a bad leader is elected? The people who didn’t vote or the people who did vote or the democratic system itself?
Kenya will hold general elections which include voting for numerous leaders such as members of parliament, senators and most important the president. These general elections are held every 5 years and this year specifically on August 8, 2017. If the 2013 presidential elections are anything to go by, I will be expecting at least 9 candidates to run for our top seat, each promising an impressive array of development initiatives. So far, according to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the organization responsible for carrying out the electoral process, there are 25,095,292 million Kenyans who are eligible to vote. As of December 2016, though, only 15,961,627 Kenyans have registered, leaving a gap of 9,130,269 Kenyans.
Why have so many eligible citizens not registered to vote? I can’t speak for all the 9,000,000 plus Kenyans who haven’t registered to vote, but I can speak for one whom I know quite well. She’s my sister.
She was not eligible to vote in the last election because she was still under 18, and now that she is eligible, she sees no point in voting. When I think about what the leadership of our country has been up to over the last five years, I can begin to sympathize. Here’s a selection of what has been happening over the last half decade.
- 2013 – The salary of Members of Parliament and other elected government leaders was hiked within months after being elected to approximately USD 9,000 monthly, despite them already being one of the highest paid politicians in the world. To add to the charming picture, over 40% of Kenyans live below the poverty line or rather earn approximately USD 2,000 annually!
- 2014 – A KSH 24.6 billion (USD 233,000,000) tender to provide laptops for standard one pupils (average age: 6 – 7) was cancelled after questions were raised about the firm who was awarded the contract: it transpired that some of the schools for which the laptops were going to be procured did not even have classrooms.
- 2015 – Some of the Independent Elections and Boundary Commission (IEBC) officials pocketed approximately KSH 50 million (USD 486,000) as bribes according to investigations conducted by UK's Serious Fraud Office (SFO). IEBC is the organization that conducts the general elections. 2016 – Kenya’s Auditor General estimates that the National Youth Service is missing KSH 1.67 billion (USD 9,000,000).
- 2016 –KSH 5.3 billion (USD 48,000,000) go missing from the Health Ministry, despite a concurrent doctors’ strike for lack of remuneration.
- 2016 – Doctors go on strike over lack of pay and poor working conditions within state health facilities.
- 2017 – Doctors are jailed following a failure to reach consensus with the government over the strike.
You would think this might fire up young individuals like my sister to register to vote, to elect better leaders. But it had the opposite effect. The result? Voter apathy. “I feel like my vote won’t make a difference,” she told me, saying that “the masses will always elect bad leaders.” Democracy for me, is a government run by citizens for citizens, and it is therefore my responsibility to help put the right leaders in place who work for and not against me. A leader must have a number of positive traits, but the four most important to me are:
- Integrity – doing the right thing, especially when no one is watching
- Visionary– making the lives of the voters better, for example improving infrastructure or health facilities
- Insightful – understanding that their actions or lack of them have real consequences
- Accountability – taking responsibility for their own actions
It often seems to me that most of these traits are missing from many elected representatives in Kenya, but that does not mean that there are not leaders out there with these characteristics. However, voter apathy is common in my sister’s age bracket (18-24 years of age). The young people feel their views are simply not represented. So how can I convince my sister to vote when I myself do not have full confidence in the Kenyan voting system? Voting patterns in Kenya have traditionally been along tribal lines, whatever the quality of the leader, and so ethnic populations with the highest numbers carry the election. This is, however, slowly changing, with millennials such as myself who do not look for their own tribe but rather good leadership.
I believe that my sister and her peers cannot afford to be apathetic. Even if the baby boomers vote along ethnic lines, the next generation will eventually take over, and she has to understand that her generation will soon have the power to vote for the leaders it wants. In order to bring about change, my sister and her generation first need to find out who their representative in local government is, and second get acquainted with the budget and what is being spent on all those services they make use of every day. Third, they need to see civic education as an obligation, where they teach the people around them about the information they have learnt. A fourth step could be organizing a debate for local leaders, which is seldom done in Kenya. For me, until all options are exhausted, I cannot say, “my vote won’t make a difference.”
It honestly hurts me to hear this phrase from the mounts of the future generation. I think of all the people who lost their lives in the name of the Republic of Kenya, people who died to ensure that we have a vote today. Voting for me will always be mandatory even if I don’t get the outcome I wanted or expected. I am not giving up on my country, and I am not giving up on its leadership.
Voting is a privilege and a duty for every citizen. It is the difference between living in a democracy and in a dictatorship. That’s why I am determined to make my sister understand that if she doesn’t vote, she has no voice. If none of her friends or her friends’ friends vote, democracy is slowly being silenced!
This post was submitted in response to Freedom of Voice.