I’ve been thinking a lot this week, for all the obvious reasons, about elections. Election caucuses in snowy Iowa; deferred elections in Pakistan; disputed elections in Kenya.
We can leave Iowa for another day. There’ll be plenty more opportunities between now and 4 November to talk about who’s going to be the next US President. In Pakistan and Kenya, however, people have been dying because of elections, or at least because of election-generated anger.
When I lived in Uganda 40 years ago, Nairobi, the capital of neighbouring Kenya, was where we went for weekends of glamour, bright lights and sophistication. It was a long and dusty drive – but worth it. Nairobi was, after Johannesburg, the most modern, vibrant capital city in Africa.
But even then, with independence hero Jomo Kenyatta as President, there was resentment at what was often seen as the domination by the Kikuyu. They may make up only a fifth of the population, but they have long been seen as the most powerful group in the country.
So anti-Kikuyu resentment is an important part of what has fuelled this week’s violence. President Mwai Kibaki is, like Kenyatta, a Kikuyu; the opposition leader Raila Odinga is, like his late father, Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice-president who fell out with Kenyatta, a Luo.
But it’s not the whole story. Many Kenyans thought that last week’s election would mark a watershed in the country’s political history, the moment when leadership passed to a new generation. They feel robbed by the old guard, the elite who have held on to power for so long. And the poorest feel that, once again, they have been robbed by the richest.
In Pakistan, it’s a different story – although dynastic politics play as important a role there as they do in Kenya. My reading of what is happening in Pakistan is that we’re witnessing a particularly brutal power play. On one side, the military and those allied with them (including some Islamist groups); on the other, the Bhutto clan whom the military have never trusted. (I am not suggesting that the military killed Benazir, although many Pakistanis are suggesting precisely that.)
Elections are, of course, an essential part of any democracy. But we must also recognise that they can deepen and sharpen divisions, sometimes, as we have seen over the past two weeks, with violent consequences. And elections alone are not enough: for a democracy to be worthy of the name, it needs to encompass a free media, an independent and impartial judiciary, and guaranteed freedom of association.
I have reported on elections in many different parts of the world over the years: in Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Usually, but not always, people vote in a spirit of hope: now, they say, perhaps things will get better.
In Kenya, at least for those who voted for opposition candidates, the hopes have been dashed, at least for now. In Pakistan, for Benazir Bhutto’s supporters, the hopes are on hold. In Iowa, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee are, for now, the “hope” candidates. (Mr Huckabee, like Bill Clinton, even comes from a town called Hope.) In all three places, those who want change believe they can, or ought to be able to, achieve it at the ballot box. That’s democracy for you.