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Monday, July 25, 2011

in defence of vote-buying

I saw a headline in the paper the other day that said “new poll laws seek to curb voter buying” I was understandably shocked that the old poll laws allowed voter buying, secondly I was struck by the lack of ambition in this law, it wasn't trying to stop voter buying just curb it, reduce it to manageable levels. This is the kind of lacklustre effort we can expect from Kenyan politics and lawmakers I thought.

But I stopped and questioned my assumptions, my starting point for the logic was that there is something wrong with voter buying, at least in a country with the economic and political set-up of Kenya, t feels like it should be wrong. All our lives we have been told it's wrong but is it really?

Vote buying is nothing more than redistributive taxation that happens every 5 years. We have these well off, well-to do politicians who finally need the masses to vote for them, consider the life of any one of these people even one who isn't living in absolute poverty. A guy living in a slum in Nairobi could be making 200 shs a day and be one of the better off of his neighbours. That's a little money for all the needs this guy has. A lot of them work really far off from where they live and they are the other demographic that fills the streets of Nairobi at 4.30 a.m. I have been coming home from a party or a club at that time and seen some roads with more human traffic in that hour than it will see cumulatively for the rest of the day. When work is far away and you can't even think about affording fare you have to think about waking up early, you have to think about comfortable shoes,well at least light shoes because the wear and tear will with time mould your shoes to your feet unless it gives you that one thing that you can have in common with politicians, an air -conditioned motion device. The government isn't working for this guy in any imaginable way, if he gets sick he goes to Kenyatta hospital and I have been to Kenyatta hospital, it's overcrowded, understaffed and sometimes as uncaring as a machine. His children will have free primary education but in a place where the student to teacher ratio is more ridiculous than a university arts class. There is no quality there, not at a time when a child needs supervision and someone who can identify how best to turn this young mind into an accomplished brain. And they don't pay tax, the politicians I mean.

They pay no tax and the only time any of the money they make gets funnelled into the hands of the average citizen is when they buy votes. I was told this story about an Indian prime-minister who was commenting on the fact that incidences of corruption in the sub-continent and in Africa were nearly the same but India was infinitely better developed with factories and infrastructure, an IT industry that is the envy of every other. He said that sure people steal in India but they re-invest in their country, they take this money they stole and put it back in the economy. The build these factories and computers and as a result steal or no progress happens. In Africa they hide their money in European banks, not only do they steal but after riches are theirs they don't use it to help their countries. In fact the only re-investing of stolen funds, the only injection back to the economy happens when someone tries to buy votes.

If we take away vote-buying how does this trickle down effect happen? There is nothing like a campaign that does not require money. In America they use this money to buy ad space in the media, to make the ads, to pay strategists and convince the electorate. In Kenya we use the money to convince the electorate, we just cut out the middle man. The middle class middle man. If we go the American way all of a sudden there will be all these firms springing up to help the politicians, advertising firms will open new branches for political consultancy and the media will make a killing in terms of advertising. This is a re-investment in the economy, but if money is going to be spent anyway why don't we help the lower classes of society? Why don't we make it so that the guy who was walking to work at 4 in the morning can take a matatu during that period or buy his family meat instead of making it so that the ad guy can move from Buru to Hurlingham and get a better car for his better life. Remember too that the guy who owns the company that will be involved in political consultancy is far from middle class, he may even be past rich and into wealthy, why should we line his pockets even more than they already are? Why can't we allow this informal charity go on?

If no vote was bought between now and the next election the names being bandied around for presidency would still be the same names as right now, which if you think about it without the benefit of first names would be the same names as in 1963. if the top 5 in the polls didn't buy a single vote and the rest of the presidential hopefuls bought as many votes as they could it would not make a dent. Kenyans vote for a variety of reasons. People vote on ethnic lines mostly, there are idealists for sure, people vote on charisma and personal preference but I doubt a huge majority will choose the president because he gave them some money. I could be wrong about this, I have done no studies, this is purely analytical and intuitive, which is a smart way of saying am just guessing.

But I guess voter buying makes an effect lower down, when we come to the MPs and councillors, the governors and the rest of the county government. Here a loose 200/= will sway a mind, convince a hungry stomach and this is the point when the argument breaks down, it makes sense when the person who would have won would win anyway but now we're at a smaller level where the guy who buys most votes wins the election. The person more prone to vote buying is a man without scruples and with an amoral attitude to life, this is the man who would steal from the country without a second thought while the guy who wouldn't buy a vote would stop and think, he would hesitate and maybe not do it. But just because this guy doesn't buy votes even though he would have does that mean he would lose the election? I know that the best answer to this is we should have that level playing field and find out. But remember there is no level playing field. Money still buys votes, directly or not. Money is still important it's just that the money goes into different coffers. The person who buys the most votes has traditionally been the person with the most vote-buying capacity. The person who will buy the most airtime and have the swankiest, most convincing ads will again be the person with the most vote-buying capacity. The person most willing to make promises to the holder of the purse strings will win an election without vote-buying this still leaves us with the most unscrupulous-ready-to-steal politician we can have except the benefits of redistributive taxation will not be felt.

Most people will not agree with this line of reasoning since it endorses vote-buying and that just seems wrong, but let me know some of your arguments against it below, am pretty easy to convince.