Wednesday, February 20, 2008

False Comparison: 2000 US Presidential Election


By John Mulaa

There is a myth abroad in Kenya that the 2000 US
presidential election debacle remotely resembles the
2007 Kenya presidential election in essentials and

The grinders of this myth readily point to
the disputed US election and its eventual
determination through the courts as the course of
action ODM in Kenya should opt for.

Al Gore, they are quick to reiterate, did not threaten mass action,
rather he meekly walked away when the system decided
for his opponent, George Bush.

The first fundamental difference between the two
situations aside, the crude manner the Electoral
Commission of Kenya handled the whole affair is the
significance of the Kenyan election vis avis the US

Those seeking parallels between the two
would be much better served if they went much further
than 2000, to the mid 19th century when America was in
economic and political flux and agitation for
appropriate comparisons.

Elections in the US then tended to be epochal because
on their outcomes hinged radical policy
re-orientations. Such was the presidential election
in 1828 that delivered the White House to Andrew
Jackson and a revolution in the conduct of public
affairs to America.

Four years prior, Congress voted
Jacksons’s rival John Quincy Adams president even
though Jackson had won the popular vote.
Jackson received a majority of the popular votes and
more electoral votes than Adams but since there was a
third candidate, Henry Clay, Jackson did not have a
majority of the electoral votes. Clay and Adams Clay's
supporters backed Adams and Clay became Secretary of
State and Adams won the Presidency.

Jackson and his supporters were outraged and in the next election they
defeated Adams by a large margin.

That was an epochal election, remembered to this day
as a transformative political event in American

American democracy was forged in the crucible of the
civil war in the 19th century. An equivalent of 6
million of today’s American population lost their
lives to preserve the union. Once the union was
secured, the constitution underwent several amendments
in order to better serve the interest country.

The 2000 US presidential election much beloved by
historically challenged Kenyans determined to draw
no-existent parallels , a debacle though it was, does
not come anywhere to a decisive moment in American
history. True, had Gore been declared winner, his
administration would likely have adopted very
different policies than those pursued by Bush who was
declared winner after legal maneuvers that stopped a
vote recount.

But in terms of the basic constitutional, social and economic structures of the
American society, the 2000 US election outcome did not
really matter a great deal. By walking away, Gore was
signaling that he had great faith in the basic
structures of his country.

The big point Kenyan dabblers in comparative politics
are missing is that 2007 presidential election in
Kenya was epochal in terms of the declared intent of
those out to upset the status quo. Indeed, it is the
epochal nature of the contest that most likely
triggered reactionary maneuvers to thwart a fair
outcome. It was a battle about the structures and
future of the country, which is what the voters
believed they were participating in.

Many voters believe that their will was blatantly and arrogantly
thwarted, hence the equal resisting force that the
action generated. For all practical purposes, the
state then ceased to exist.

The Annan led mediation is about reconstituting the state and society by
creating legitimate structures essential to the
orderly functioning of the polity.

The 2007 elections in Kenya were foundational and not
merely procedural. And that speaks to the difference
between the 2000 US presidential election and the 2007
Kenya election.

Elections in the US, no matter the level of excitement about change, do not promise or deliver a fundamental break with the past despite what
new and exciting politicians might say. Having settled
the question of society’s basic framework, America is a
country that changes incrementally mostly and only
rarely radically changes its course.

It has been suggested that it is possible to automate
government in America by simply setting the policy
dial on centrist and letting the system function
automatically, occasionally tweaking it here and
there. Few Americans will miss the politicians thrown
out of work! That is how stable the system is.

In contrast, Kenya is experiencing basic definitional
problems of the sort America resolved in America least
a century and a half ago. To understand this is to
appreciate the magnitude of the problems the country
faces. If the mediation process does not set the
country right by enabling the foundation of
fundamental, legitimate and properly functioning
institutions, the matter will have to be resolved
somehow sometime. This is what history teaches.