Kenyan violence shows divisive potential of elections

One of our more cherished beliefs, or at least desires, is that democratic governance is a key to a stable, productive society in which differences can be worked out through the political process.

Recent riots, murders and displacements in Kenya might cause some to question whether the most visible sign of democratic rule, elections, are more likely to exacerbate societal divisions than heal them.

On the politically unstable continent of Africa, Kenya has long been seen as a refuge of relative stability and productivity. It emerged from near-dictatorship under notoriously corrupt former president Daniel arap Moi five years ago when Mwai Kibaki, then allied with Raila Odinga, who beat Moi’s hand-picked successor.

Something of a civil society emerged. Most Kenyans embraced a Kenyan identity, helped along by the fact that traditionally members of the 40 tribes in Kenya have intermarried and done business with one another.

But a contest for power can bring out the worst in political leaders. In Kenya, Odinga split from President Mibaki and challenged him in the presidential election held Dec. 27. Mibaki is a member of the Kikuyu tribe, traditionally dominant, while Odinga is of the Luo tribe. This was the first time members of different tribes had opposed one another in an election.

Beneath a veneer of stability Odinga and members of other tribes believe the Kikuyu have gotten more than their fair share of government benefits. During the campaign both leaders exploited latent ethnic hostilities to curry voter favor, urging people who had been friends and neighbors to start seeing one another through suspicious tribal eyes.

When Kibaki was declared the narrow winner in what was almost certainly a rigged election, violence erupted immediately. The leaders reaped the tribal hatred they had sown and the people suffered — an estimated 600 people dead by now and 250,000 displaced, some fleeing to neighboring countries.

An effort by Ghanaian President John Kufuor to end the political crisis has failed and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is giving mediation a try.

The crisis is a reminder that when the power of government to take property through taxation and rule by force is at stake, the raw side of political power — brute force — often rips aside the mask of democratic civility.