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LEARNING FROM THE PAST: How to shore up the legitimacy of the 2017 Election

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Learning from the past
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Elections are supposed to flip power relations. During an electoral process, a country’s political elites remember their fundamental jobs and are – more than ever – the servants of the people. While campaigns are ongoing, the elites need voters’ support, their attention…and most importantly, their votes. During this time, it is voters who can sit back and evaluate their leaders, deciding whether or not their actions are deserving of another term in office. Over the years and around the world, however, this power structure has often been reversed. In the quest to win and/or retain power, political elites have managed to shape the electoral process to their advantage, creating loopholes and amending laws that dilute public power.

PUBLIC CONFIDENCE IN THE KENYAN ELECTORAL PROCESS

Kenya is no exception to this rule, and voters have taken note. Over the past fifteen years, the Kenyan public’s confidence in elections has dropped precipitously. In fact, between 2005 and 2015, the proportion of Kenyans who strongly agreed that elections were the best way to choose leaders decreased by more than ten percentage points. Unsurprisingly, faith in the credibility of elections has also suffered. In fact, there has never been a time over the last three election cycles (including the current one) when a majority of Kenyans has felt that the last election was completely free and fair.

With the next general election in Kenya scheduled to take place in less than three months, it is critical to think about how to urgently address this marked dearth in voter confidence. An important first step is the assessment of potential vulnerabilities. Reflection about what went wrong last time and what is at risk of going wrong again is useful, not only for policymakers but also for voters, who can and should take time to critically assess whether or not their electoral processes prioritize their roles and voices.

There are, of course, many issues to consider. These include poorly enforced electoral laws, delayed timelines, the lack of intra-party democracy, incidents of pre-election violence, and shrinking space for vigorous public debate on the most contentious and timely election-related issues. At this stage in the electoral cycle, however, it is most urgent to focus attention on the factors that most significantly impacted the credibility of the last election and which continue to haunt this election cycle. Together, unresolved questions regarding leadership and integrity, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), voter registration and the process of counting and tallying threaten the credibility of the upcoming elections.

LEADERSHIP AND INTEGRITY

To begin, the 2013 election was the first to take place under the guiding principles of the country’s new, internationally lauded constitution, itself the result of a decades-long struggle. The constitution included many new provisions that would have a bearing on elections, but one of the most fundamental, overarching issues concerned the qualifications for and conduct expected of state officers. Indeed, Chapter Six of the constitution, devoted to leadership and integrity, is groundbreaking in the context of Kenyan political history, confronting, as it does, some of the most longstanding and deeply embedded obstacles to good governance.

Over the past fifteen years, the Kenyan public’s confidence in elections has dropped precipitously. In fact, between 2005 and 2015, the proportion of Kenyans who strongly agreed that elections were the best way to choose leaders decreased by more than ten percentage points.

Chapter Six fundamentally shifted the relationship between state officers and the people, requiring the former to selflessly serve the latter. Despite the dramatic weakness of the Leadership and Integrity Act that was passed to operationalize Chapter Six provisions, the lead-up to election day in 2013 did include bold efforts to test the letter and spirit of the law. The most notable of these was a lawsuit filed by the International Center for Policy and Conflict and five others, which asked a deeply controversial question: were Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto in violation of Chapter Six standards, and therefore ineligible to run for office, based on the International Criminal Court’s indictments against them for their alleged commission of crimes against humanity in the aftermath of the 2007 election?

The High Court’s judgment was disappointing, leaving the public doubting that state institutions were in fact committed to the standards of the constitution. Although the Court claimed that it lacked jurisdiction on matters related to the presidential election, its judgment did define the standard of integrity required by a person seeking public office. According to the Court, such an office-seeker should be beyond reproach and should not have unresolved questions about his/her character and commitment to the national values in the constitution. On the other hand, however, it also ruled that there is a distinction between appointive and elective positions. For the latter, the Court was of the opinion that it is up to the voters to decide who to choose, based on candidates’ “honesty, rectitude, uprightness and scrupulousness.” After the judgment was handed down, a lawyer for the petitioners remarked, “Today marks the official death of one of the chapters in the constitution. That is Chapter Six.”

Uhuru and Ruto were thus free to run for office, and Kenyans were told that questions about their character related to the indictments against them were “a personal issue.”

More importantly, since the substantive issues of the case were never appealed to the Supreme Court, Kenyans were left with an electoral context that was marked by the severe limitations of the candidate pool. After all, the Court had not considered that by attempting to leave it up to voters to decide how strictly candidates should be judged with regard to factors of integrity, it could well be that voters ended up with little substantive choice. With no enforcement of Chapter Six provisions for elective office-seekers, voters could well be faced with a slate of candidates, all of whose characters were tainted by integrity-related problems. The ruling also made it clear that there was little political will to apply the leadership and integrity laws across the board, thus cementing the status quo of elite impunity.

Unsurprisingly, unresolved leadership and integrity issues continue to plague this electoral cycle. In 2016, PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted a survey on the prevalence of economic crimes in the world and found that Kenya topped the list of 78 countries in the study. A shocking one percent of the country’s national budget had been properly accounted for in the previous year. Theft and misappropriation was the most common type of crime. As of 2016, there were 17 MPs who had been charged in court for committing serious criminal offenses, including fraud, forgery, hate speech, rape, corruption and incitement to violence. At least 90 others were under suspicion for graft.

The public has noticed. When asked how much they trusted the ruling party, the opposition and MPs, Kenyans reported significantly low levels of confidence. 

Table 1: Trust in Parliament, the Ruling Party and Opposition Parties

Not at All Just a Little Somewhat A Lot Don’t Know
Parliament 14.7% 28.5% 36.4% 17.1% 3.2%
Ruling Party 16.3% 21.0% 31.1% 29.9% 1.6%
Opposition 21.8% 28.7% 31.1% 15.2% 3.1%

Source: Afrobarometer R6 2014/2015

 

Such findings are telling, and they are especially relevant in the context of upcoming elections. Given the lack of political will to seriously implement and enforce constitutional standards of integrity, the public has little reason to put its trust in the state, or in the electoral process. Without proper enforcement of Chapter Six provisions, voters’ choices are always restricted. Over time, such an environment can lead to increasingly low levels of public confidence. In the long run, this endangers democratic resilience.

In an attempt to address the gaps in Chapter Six enforcement, the IEBC recently convened what is known as the Chapter Six Working Group on Election Preparedness. The group, which includes several state institutions, plans to vet parties’ lists of nominated candidates to ensure that they adhere to the Attorney General’s recently published guidelines. It is unclear, however, what authority this group has to carry out its stated purpose, especially given that the Court’s ruling in the case against Uhuru and Ruto made it clear that the presumption of innocence holds until cases are concluded.

THE INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL AND BOUNDARIES COMMISSION

Closely linked to public confidence in elected leaders is trust in the body charged with administering elections, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). In fact, one study found that public confidence in a country’s electoral management body (EMB) is tied to public faith in the credibility of the election. Specifically, in a paper on Nigerian elections, Nicholas Kerr found,

The strongest correlate of citizen’s perceptions of election quality is the performance of [Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)]…when citizens are highly satisfied with the performance of INEC, they are thirty-eight percent more likely to consider the 2007 elections free and fair… But even more importantly, it highlights that ordinary Nigerians associate their evaluations of EMB performance more with their assessments of election quality, despite how strong their partisan attachments may be.

In Kenya, public confidence in the IEBC has fluctuated dramatically over the last five years. At the end of 2012, surveys showed that 70 percent of Kenyans had faith that the IEBC was carrying out its work impartially and 72 percent believed in the Commission’s independence. One month before election day in 2013, 91 percent of respondents said that they had faith in the IEBC’s competence to manage the election and 89 percent believed in the Commission’s impartiality. 91 percent of respondents also said they believed the IEBC was independent enough to conduct the election in a free and fair manner.

These pre-2013 election levels of confidence were a high point for the Commission, which suffered from plummeting levels of public faith after the 2013 election. The drop in confidence was due to a combination of factors, the most notable of which included procurement delays and irregularities in the lead-up to election day, problems with technology during voter registration and on election day, the failure of the electronic results verification system and the subsequent delay in announcing the result. The Supreme Court case challenging the integrity of the entire process, filed by the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) and the Kenyan Asian Forum, also publicly highlighted the multiple technical and administrative problems throughout the process. Indeed, post-election polls revealed a precipitous drop in public confidence in the Commission. In the immediate aftermath of the election, 44 percent of Kenyans reported that they were confident in the IEBC. In Nyanza, only 8 percent of respondents felt this way. By 2015, the figures had not changed dramatically, with 43 percent of Kenyans reporting confidence in the IEBC. Among opposition supporters, 71 percent reported that they did not have confidence in the Commission.

After the judgment was handed down, a lawyer for the petitioners remarked, “Today marks the official death of one of the chapters in the constitution. That is Chapter Six.”

The IEBC has experienced significant changes since the 2013 election. Senior members of the Commission were implicated in a corruption scandal, and a series of opposition protests against the IEBC eventually resulted in the dismissal of all the commissioners. New commissioners assumed office in late December 2016.

The changes seem to have made some difference. A recent poll shows that 72 percent of respondents feel that the IEBC is prepared to conduct a free and fair election. On the other hand, Kenyans are also extremely cautious in their outlooks. In fact, in four of Kenya’s former provinces, more than 20 percent of the population is not sure that the Commission will be able to administer a credible election.

While the high level of public confidence is encouraging, the new IEBC stands at an important crossroads. In order to maintain public faith, the Commission will have to work to show Kenyans that it is serious about avoiding the mistakes that marred the last process and that it is willing to fight to maintain its independence. The signs so far are mixed. The Commission’s decision to cancel the tender process for election technology and engage in a direct award of the contract to the same firm that was partially responsible for the previous set of botched technology raises questions about how well the IEBC has learned from past mistakes. This is compounded by a more recent announcement that the IEBC may proceed with a direct award to a ballot-printing firm. Moreover, recent analysis of the last mass voter registration exercise has revealed serious administrative and technical irregularities. On the other hand, the Commission’s stated commitment to enforcing gender parity in party lists and to enforcing leadership and integrity standards in the vetting of candidates is admirable.

The IEBC is making certain attempts to keep the public updated. It does hold press conferences, and it regularly updates its website with relevant press releases. This information is useful, but the Commission must go further with regard to transparency if it wishes to maintain public confidence. There are several outstanding questions at this stage of the electoral process, the most urgent of which are related to procurement, voter registration, the ongoing audit of the voters’ register, the use of technology, and counting of results. If the IEBC begins to address some of these concerns, it could go a long way in preserving public faith, especially as it is likely that problems will continue to arise as election day gets closer. No election is perfect, but the IEBC’s honest evaluations of its strengths and weaknesses related to current concerns are critical.

VOTER REGISTRATION

In 2013, much of the public’s dissatisfaction with the IEBC was rooted in problems with the voters’ register. The register was shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, with the total number of registered voters in Kenya shifting throughout the electoral cycle. The first sign of the problems to come appeared in February 2013, when it became clear that the final, gazetted register differed significantly from the provisional register released in December 2012. Overall, the register had grown by 12,500 voters.

Without proper enforcement of Chapter Six provisions, voters’ choices are always restricted. Over time, such an environment can lead to increasingly low levels of public confidence. In the long run, this endangers democratic resilience.

While a decrease in the number of registered voters was expected (because the verification and cleaning process would expunge dead voters, multiple registrations, etc), it was unclear how the register grew in size between December 2012 and February 2013. Moreover, there were significant regional changes in the numbers between December and February. These are detailed in the table below.

Table 2: Internal Changes to the Register of Voters

Region Changes between December 2012 and February 2013
Coast +901
Nyanza -15,026
Central +1,848
Rift Valley +67,000
North Eastern +6,604
Western +2,938
Eastern +4,222
Nairobi -50,102

Source: AfriCOG/KPTJ. 2013. “Voter Registration for the 2013 General Elections in Kenya.”

 

These changes became more worrying when the IEBC could not commit to one total number of registered voters. In fact, there were at least six different totals announced during various parts of the electoral cycle.

Table 3: Shifting Totals of Registered Voters in Kenya

Provisional Register (December 2012) 14,340,036
Principle Register (February 2013) 14,352,545
Special Register (March 2, 2013) 36,236
Election Results Total (March 9, 2013) 14,352,533
Green Book Total 14,388,793
Post-Election Register (July 2013) 14,388,781

Source: AfriCOG/KPTJ. 2013. “Voter Registration for the 2013 General Elections in Kenya.”

 

This shifting total, in addition to the IEBC’s assertion that what was known as the “green book” (A green book is an unregulated, manually-recorded list of registered voters. It had been severely criticized by experts.) was being used for purposes of registration, severely compromised public confidence in the integrity of the register. Indeed, the lack of a single, verifiable register breeds suspicion about political influence at worst and basic incompetence of the electoral management body at best.

Doubts around the register have not faded. In fact, the IEBC’s two mass voter registration exercises in the current cycle were rife with problems. These included widespread problems obtaining IDs, problems with dysfunctional and nonfunctional biometric voter registration (BVR) kits, unexplained use of the green book, disorganized registration centres and poorly trained IEBC staff, registration bribery, coercive registration practices and massive amounts of transfers. At the end of these processes, the IEBC announced that the total number of registered voters had grown to 19,749,310, representing a 37 percent increase since 2013.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, 44 percent of Kenyans reported that they were confident in the IEBC. In Nyanza, only 8 percent of respondents felt this way. By 2015, the figures had not changed dramatically, with 43 percent of Kenyans reporting confidence in the IEBC. Among opposition supporters, 71 percent reported that they did not have confidence in the Commission.

The elections law also allows the IEBC to engage a professional firm to conduct an audit of the voters’ register. The stated purposes of such an audit are to verify the accuracy of the register, recommend mechanisms to enhance its accuracy and to update it. While an audit may go a long way in promoting public confidence in the register, the process has thus far been controversial. In addition to allegations that there were irregularities related to the decision to hire KPMG, there is mistrust because of the firm’s lack of expertise in conducting such audits. Indeed, KPMG’s proposed methodology does not reflect internationally accepted best practice for the audits of voters’ registers, and there has thus far been a lack of transparency with regard to KPMG’s progress and therefore its eventual findings.

In addition to these technical problems with registration, the legitimacy of the entire process was cast in doubt when it emerged that the IEBC had cancelled a public tender process for the acquisition of an integrated elections management system in order to give a direct award to a company known as Morpho, the same company that provided the problematic BVR kits in 2013.

The doubts that have arisen as a result of the above issues have been compounded by the IEBC’s refusal to make the register publicly accessible. In fact, the IEBC did not even provide the updated register to political parties during their primaries. The lack of the register made it impossible for parties to confirm that voters were in fact registered, and this contributed to the chaos that characterized the primary processes. The IEBC has also refused to give the data to civil society on the grounds that it cannot release it until after the audit is complete. Without access to the pre- and post-audit data, however, it is impossible for the public to conduct its own analyses and understand the changes.

A related issue is that of the integrated election management system (IEMS) itself. According to the IEBC, the system is meant to be wholly integrated, such that voter registration, voter identification and results transmission are linked. Since the IEMS technology did not arrive until well after the conclusion of registration, however, it is unclear how all the components will be linked, if at all.

ELECTION DAY, COUNTING AND TALLYING

Confidence is also, of course, based on the credibility of results announcements. In 2013, the IEBC used an electronic results transmission system, which was designed to allow polling station officers to transmit results to regional tallying centres and to IEBC headquarters in Nairobi via a secure, digital connection. This system was meant to protect the credibility of the count and prevent the kind of manipulation that had been seen in past elections, which often occurred during the time when tally sheets were being physically transported from polling stations around the country to Nairobi. Unfortunately, however, the system was a spectacular failure. Midway through the counting process, Kenyans watched the stream of live results freeze on television screens. Journalists based at the Bomas of Kenya, which was the national elections centre, referred to it as the Bomas screen saver.

When the electronic system failed, the IEBC again relied on the paper forms, which had to be ferried from all over the country to Nairobi. As expected, the paper forms were highly problematic. Issues with the polling station-level tallying forms (Forms 34) included:

  1. Many Form 34s showed that there were more votes cast than registered voters. In Turbo constituency, Polling Station 69, Stream 2, there were 784 votes cast but only 755 registered voters. In Polling Station 71, Stream 2, there were 741 votes cast but only 716 registered voters. In Kacheliba, Polling Station 112, there were 215 votes cast but only 214 registered voters.
  2. In some Form 34s, only some presidential candidates were listed. For example, in Baringo South, Polling Station 91, Stream 1, it was only the names of Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga and Paul Muite that appeared. Some candidates were also missing from Form 34 in Baringo South, Polling Station 68, Stream 1.
  3. Many of the figures on the form did not add up. For instance, one of the most glaring discrepancies occurred in Kacheliba constituency, Polling Station 102. Here, the votes cast are recorded as 0, while there are 170 rejected votes and 170 valid votes. In Baringo South, Polling Station 117, Stream 1, there were 133 valid votes and 0 rejected votes, which should total 133 votes cast. The figure for votes cast, however, was 134. In Cherangany, Polling Station 2, Stream 5, the number of valid votes is 332 and the number of rejected votes is 4, which adds up to 336 total votes cast. The number of votes cast, however, was 340. In Turkana North, Polling Station 12, the number of votes cast (340) did not equal the number of valid votes (340) plus the number of rejected votes (5).
  4. There were several instances of changes having been made to various figures on the form, with no authorizing signature next to the change. Such alterations affected individual candidates’ results, the total number of votes cast, the number of rejected votes, the number of valid votes and the number of registered voters. This change had the potential to affect other numbers on the form. For instance, a change to the number of rejected votes would necessarily change the number of total votes cast.
  5. In some forms, there was no figure indicating the number of registered voters. There was no official Form 34 for Polling Station 19 in Turkana Central. Instead, the results were reported on an ordinary piece of paper, which did not include the number of registered voters.
  6. Many Form 34s were missing. There was no Form 34 for Polling Station 84 or for Polling Station 99 in Turkana North. Polling Station 99 did not appear on the list of polling stations published on the IEBC website on February 24, 2013, but it did appear in the paper gazette. Forms 34 for Polling Stations 92 and 113 in Turkana Central were missing.
  7. Some forms did not include results for certain candidates. In Turkana Central, Polling Station 55, there were no results listed for Muite and Kenneth. In Turkana Central, Polling Station 65, there were no results listed for Kiyiapi, Karua, Dida, Muite and Mudavadi.
  8. There were non-identical duplicates of certain forms. In Turkana Central, Polling Station 89, there are 4 nearly identical copies of Form 34. It is unclear whether the numbers on these forms were counted multiple times. In Kacheliba, Polling Station 2, there were two forms with different entries. There were also multiple copies of perfectly identical forms, and it was unclear whether or not these figures were counted more than once.
  9. There were many forms in which it was extremely difficult to determine the exact value of the written figure, either because of the handwriting or because the original figure had been written over with another number. There were an overwhelming number of such cases, and the choice of which number to report was subjective.

The most worrying issues called the very accuracy of the count into question.

The failure of the electronic system was not a complete surprise. In the month before the 2013 election, tests of the electronic systems revealed significant problems. In fact, Sarah Elderkin detailed how a test of the system “had gone horribly wrong.” After one hour, only one of five mock polling stations could successfully transmit results. In this election cycle, the IEBC again plans to use an electronic system. The IEMS, mentioned above, includes results transmission. It is unclear, however, if and when the IEBC will publicly test the kits and publicly explain its plans for the kits’ dysfunction or failure. In fact, one of the most pressing unanswered questions in this cycle is related to proposed back up systems. New amendments to the electoral law allow for the use of complementary registration, identification and results transmission mechanisms, to be used in the event that the technology fails. To date, however, the election regulations only provide vague provisions about using the printed out register for voter identification in cases where voters cannot be found in the biometric list. The regulations do not clarify what, if any, complementary systems will be used in case the electronic results transmission system fails.

The lack of a clear definition of these complementary mechanisms is highly problematic, especially given Kenya’s political history and context. During mass voter registration, the IEBC used the green book in conjunction with the BVR kits. Does this mean that the green book was the complementary mechanism with regard to voter registration? Will the green book be used in addition to the printed out register to identify voters on election day?

Midway through the counting process, Kenyans watched the stream of live results freeze on television screens. Journalists based at the Bomas of Kenya, which was the national elections centre, referred to it as the Bomas screen saver.

There is one significant difference with regard to the law in the current election cycle. The High Court recently ruled that constituency level results for all elections are final and can only be appealed through a court process. The decision nullified Section 83(4) of the General Elections Regulations, which empowers the IEBC to “confirm” results before announcing them as final. The IEBC filed an appeal to the decision, with IEBC Chair Wafula Chebukati stating that constituency level officers could “make mistakes.” The IEBC’s decision to appeal has sparked some controversy, with the opposition threatening that there will be no election if the IEBC does not abandon its appeal and alleging that it means the Commission wants the power to unfairly change results. Civil society has also expressed its reservations about the appeal, suggesting that it erodes public confidence in the IEBC’s commitment to upholding the law.

Given the extreme controversy and suspicion surrounding the announcement of results in 2013 and in other past elections, the IEBC should acknowledge that there is significant public concern around the potential use of manual systems. To promote public faith, the IEBC should explain its rationale regarding the appeal. If constituency level results are erroneous, as Chebukati fears, a court process to address such problems would allow the public to see and understand the issues at hand. It would promote transparency. Surely, this option is better than a closed process in which the IEBC changes constituency results at the national tallying centre.

As it currently stands, it is unclear whether the IEBC and other stakeholders have learned from past elections. If public confidence is a priority, these stakeholders must immediately respond – at minimum – to the above public concerns in an honest and open way, remembering that it is voters who hold the power at this stage of the game, and it is voters who will ultimately decide the credibility of the election. The legitimacy of the upcoming election now hangs in the balance, but there is still time to save it…if only we are willing to learn from the past.

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Seema Shah is an elections expert with experience in North America, Asia and Africa. She holds a doctorate in Political Science, and her research focuses on electoral politics, with an emphasis on electoral integrity and electoral violence.

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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief

Late president John Magafuli never was the anti-corruption saviour international media claimed.

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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief
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Tanzania, a country that produced Julius Nyerere, is a country tottering on the precipice of a pandemic catastrophe. The philosopher-president ruled for 23 years and put the nation on the international map as a frontline state that stood up to Apartheid South Africa and helped liberate modern Uganda by ridding it of Idi Amin.

With the abrupt death of its populist president John Magufuli on March 17, 2021, ostensibly from a COVID-19 related ailment, Tanzania finds itself at a crossroads, insofar as tackling the devasting disease is concerned. Magufuli who was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, became the denier-in-chief of COVID-19. The disease has decimated scores of Tanzanians, including top government officials.

Magufuli was hailed as a tough anti-corruption crusader, as he entered state house in 2015. Ordinary Tanzanians initially saw him as their saviour in the fight against institutionalised state corruption. The international media also saw him as a man keen on tackling state corruption, “but Magufuli was all about optics,” said a Tanzanian journalist. “He wasn’t fighting state corruption pers se, what he was doing was to get rid of Jakaya Kikwete’s (immediate former president) networks in the government and replace with his own. So, it was just a matter of time before Tanzanians and the world realised Magufuli was just interested in musical chairs.”

Magufuli was re-elected on October 28, 2020 in one of the most controversial post-Nyerere’s Tanzania elections with a whopping 84 percent. His “true colours” revealed themselves after Benjamin Mkapa’s death in July 2020. After mourning the ex-president, Magufuli turned his attention to the business of crippling the opposition.

Magufuli was a protégé of Mkapa who served as president between 1995–2005. It was Mkapa, who in 2015, prevailed on the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, ‘Party of the Revolution’) national executive council (NEC) to pick newcomer Magufuli as its flagbearer for what was to be a hotly contested general election in October 2015. Magufuli was then primed to run against Edward Lowassa, a CCM stalwart, who had bolted to Chama Cha Democrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA), after not clinching the CCM ticket, in which he was touted as one of the hot favourites.

The “true colours” was the ruthlessness with which Magufuli pursued the opposition in the lead-up to the presidential elections. That massive victory came in the backdrop of President Magufuli’s continuous campaigns since being inaugurated as the fifth president in 2015. “Magufuli never stopped campaigning,” said a Tanzanian journalist: “He rode on the wave of populism – dishing out money and favours to select supporters and well-choreographed individuals wherever he went.”

The 2020 Magufuli campaigns were a mirror-image of his mentor’s similar campaigns in 2000. Just like Mkapa’s mission was to presumably pulverize the nascent opposition, Magufuli’s mission 20 years later was similarly to ensure that the “irritating” opposition is no more and is, literary ran out of town. Mkapa in the October 2000 elections unleashed so much violence on the opposition that many of its supporters sought exile in neighbouring Kenya, after the elections.

Mkapa’s use of unmitigated force by Jeshi la Polisi (Tanzania has a police force, as opposed to a police service) and Field Force Unit (FFU), a paramilitary outfit much like Kenya’s dreaded General Service Unit (GSU) was unprecedented in Tanzanian politics. Just like Magufuli, it seems Mkapa’s “true colours” were revealed only after his mentor’s death the previous year on October 14, 1999. Mkapa was a protégé of the founding father Julius Kambarage Nyerere.

It was Nyerere who held Mkapa’s hand in 1995, after influencing his nomination by CCM, and single-handedly campaigned for him throughout the country. Tanzania held its first multiparty general elections in 1995, pitting CCM against a disparate opposition for the first time since its formation in 1977.

He dished out money and favours to select supporters.

Revisiting this unparalleled violence orchestrated on fellow Tanzanians, Mkapa, the former journalist-turned-diplomat-turned-president in his memoirs: My Life, My Purpose – A Tanzanian President Remembers published in January 2019, regretted the 2000 election ordeal. To some Tanzanian journalists and political analysts, Mkapa and Magufuli are today referred to as the chief advocates and perpetrators of state violence in post-independent Tanzania.

Both the presidential elections of 2000 and 2020 happened under a cloud of America’s own election problems: In 2000, it was the “Florida fiasco.” Florida was then governed by the Republican’s presidential candidate, George Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush. Bush was running against the Democratic Party’s Al Gore. Jeb was allegedly accused of rigging on behalf of his elder brother.

Like the Americans say, the electoral college vote was too close to call: the vote was not only going to determine who was going to be the winner of the states’s 25 votes, but the next president after Bill Clinton. A recount was called by the Democrats and for a brief moment, the democrats believed they had taken it, only for the Republicans to also ask for their own recount. Bush won with a razor thin win vote. The democrats were not persuaded. To cut a long story short, the sunshine state’s case found itself in the supreme court, where the republican-led court declared George Bush the eventual winner.

In 2020, with both the Tanzania and US elections being held days apart, America once again came under the world spotlight after the “Pennsylvania problem”, in which President Donald Trump claimed his votes had been tampered with and paid for a recount. The MAGA Republican Party candidate was defending his seat against “sleepy Joe” a derogatory tag given by Trump to Joe Biden.

The citing of both examples here is to emphasise that America in 2000 and 2020 could not claim a moral compass to the Tanzania government’s excesses in its elections. Covering the 2000 elections, I remember in Dar es Salaam, a CCM top official telling us journalists that America could not lecture Tanzania on matters election – “they should first deal with their own election rigging in Florida, before accusing us of unleashing violence and rigging the islands’ results.”

Nyerere had always been opposed to the twin islands of Pemba and Zanzibar’s divorce with the mainland Tanganyika – a sticking sore thump between the mainland and the islands, since the republic turned to plural politics. But he never advocated state violence, instead, he sued for dialogue and persuasion.

Magufuli was determined to put the opposition in its place this time round: In a parliament of 261 members, the opposition only won seven. “By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country,” said the deceased in one of his campaign rallies.

There is not a doubt that he loathed the opposition, so much so that he warned the regional commissioners and election officials, “I don’t pay you so that you can allow opposition to win.” Tume la Uchaguzi (National Election Commission) flatly refused any presidential debates and told the opposition it could debate among itself if it so wished.

In Tanzania, CCM ni tasisi,” a local journalist reiterated to me. Literary it means the ruling party CCM is an institution. Figuratively it means, CCM is Tanzania and Tanzania is CCM. Anybody going against the “wishes of the party” would be crushed. The CCM’s propaganda machinery against the leading opposition figure Tundu Lissu of CHADEMA was geared to pulverize all his efforts of running a successful campaign. “He was being hunted down like a wild animal,” said the journalist.

Magufuli claimed Lissu was a supporter of LGBTQ and that he was a tool of the West being used to campaign for mashoga, homosexuals’ rights. Several African presidents during their re-election campaigns have turned the hot-button issue of LGBTQ, their favourite bogeyman: In the terribly conservative African societies, nothing evokes emotions of antipathy like suggesting gay-ism could be mainstreamed. Yoweri Museveni has done it, John Magufuli did it, just like Robert Mugabe did it before him.

CCM being Tanzania and Tanzania being CCM, not even the bravest of private media would dare report on the opposition or against Magufuli and CCM. “There was total blackout on the opposition by the media. All what Tanzanians could read and listen to, on politics, was on the ‘indefatigable Magu’ and his infrastructural developments,” said my Tanzanian journalist friend. Hence, Tanzania media did not report on politics – it reported on Magufuli, the person.

By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country

Being heavy users of social media, Tanzanians turned to VPN – virtual private network. Found as an app in many smart phones, it protects one’s communication from snoopers like government agencies and hackers. What VPN does when activated is to bypass the conventional internet service providers (ISP) when connecting to the internet. In the case of Tanzania’s government shutting down its ISP, tech savvy Tanzanians resorted to VPN to access facebook and especially Twitter, to fend off the states’s eavesdropping.

This is the reason why Magufuli ordered all social media outlets shut, said the journalist. All what the Tanzania Communication Authority needed was a nod from Magufuli. A consumer of foreign news outlets, Tanzanians also resorted to BBC, Deutsche Welle (Sauti ya Ujerumani) and VOA, to stay informed on their country’s politics. “This is how many of them were informed and kept tabs on Lissu’s campaigns,” said the journalist.

Even after being sworn-in for the second term, President Magufuli pursued the browbeaten opposition. Chief opposition figure Lissu had to escape the country a second time. “Run or be run over, these people are not joking,” Lissu was ostensibly warned by his intelligence team. In September 2017, Lissu had survived an assassination attempt in Dodoma, that saw his vehicle sprayed with bullets by “unknown” assailants, as he left parliament for his house for lunch. On November 7, 10 days after the elections were over, he hid at the German embassy, then onwards to Brussels, where he had been recuperating for three years after treatment in Nairobi.

The former MP for Arusha Urban Godbless Lema also skipped the country and sought refuge in Kenya after claiming government people were after him. Lema, with his family was granted asylum in Canada.

Nyerere’s CCM may have operated in the one-party era during the cold war, but many Tanzanians of the post-independent generation remember those days with nostalgia. “The party was more democratic and free, unlike today,” said a former CCM mkereketwa (party diehard).

Magufuli’s populism was laced with autocratic tendencies. He told fellow Tanzanians msinijaribu mimi ni jiwe (don’t try me, I’m as tough as a rock), meaning he prided himself in being tough-headed.

“Magufuli’s CCM in the era of multiparty brooks no dissent, is dictatorial and dangerous, while Nyerere’s CCM preferred a palaver type of democracy where party issues were discussed until it arrived at a consensus,” said a University of Dar es Salaam don.

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South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?

Assuming today’s socioeconomic crisis benefits the Left is folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision to make class the fault line of social polarisation, and for that we need to face the challenge of constructing a new party.

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South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?
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Over the last decade, the Left in a number of Western countries has undergone a historic transition from “protest to politics,” to borrow the words of the late Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch and his frequent co-author Sam Gindin. From Podemos in Spain to Sanders in the United States, a new wave of parties and electoral coalitions have emerged and made rapid gains. Despite setbacks and defeats, Panitch and Gindin’s indispensable analysis of these events in The Socialist Challenge Today, casts them in an unambiguously positive light. None of the examples they study offer formulas for resolving the vexing dilemmas facing the socialist movement in our globalised present.

But in their determination to take state power seriously they constitute an unmistakable step forward, after decades in which the Left’s confinement to episodic instances of mobilisation left the electoral field wide open to the parties of business. Part of this “new new” Left’s success stems from a willingness to shake free of its own past. Building a viable socialism of the 21st century, they argue, requires dispensing with the outmoded parts of the Leninist model, like its wager on insurrection, while retaining that which still holds value, like its internationalist spirit.

These developments hold important lessons for us on the South African Left. Just under a decade ago it seemed that we were on the verge of effecting a similar transition “from protest to politics.” During the first decade and a half of democracy, a socialist opposition had found a locus in the so-called “new” social movements—like the Anti-Privatisation Forum—which grew in reaction to various parts of the ruling African National Congress’ neoliberal agenda.

These waged a number of important defensive struggles and scored a few key victories but fundamentally did nothing to loosen capital’s grip on policymaking. By the end of the 2000s most were a spent force. It became clear to a growing segment of the Left that lasting gains would not be achieved unless social agitation were more effectively linked with efforts to seise governing power. The ability to think these more ambitious terms received a major boost when the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), the nation’s largest manufacturing union, appeared to redraw the political map of the country by breaking from the ANC, amidst a wave of working class militancy.

Of course for the “official” left which NUMSA represented there had never been any turn away from politics as such. But decades of compromise had bred a form of politics that had become completely unmoored from the guiding thread of class antagonism. NUMSA’s move thus constituted a kind of mirror image transition—from a back-room corporatism to a politics more grounded in the methods and spirit of “protest”. This is what imbued the “NUMSA moment” with such hope—it promised to re-connect the two sides of South Africa’s bifurcated Left, and supply the strategic elements that had been missing from each. By matching the militancy and class-independence of the social movement Left with structural and organisational might of the “official” Left, it seemed possible that a mass socialist movement could be rapidly brought into being.

That was not to be. From today’s vantage it’s impossible to regard the NUMSA moment as anything but an abject failure. The political party which eventually issued from it is the farthest cry from the unifying force that so many had hoped for. While the international left has been able to advance by breaking with its shibboleths, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) has fallen back on a slavish appropriation of Bolshevik ideology, almost comical in its extremes.

Despite enormous resources, a large part supplied by a US-based billionaire, the party ran a dismal general election campaign in 2019 where it failed to get even a tenth of NUMSA’s own membership to vote for it (it ultimately only amassed 25 000 votes nationally, below the threshold to obtain one seat in Parliament). It’s since never recovered, joining a host of other failed socialist parties on the margins of political life. Marginality seems in turn to have degraded the internal culture of the party, which now resembles closely the Stalinism of the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party in all its worst aspects.

The floundering of the NUMSA moment is a terrible blow. But the setback inflicted on us will far greater if we fail to draw the correct lessons from it. Perhaps the most worrying outcome is that it precipitates a slide back into movementism, and shuts the window that we’ve had to execute the transition from “protest to politics.” Party politics acquired a bad name during the era of “protest” in South Africa, and many on the Left already feel that the SRWP’s example vindicated their worst suspicions.

But what the SRWP actually reveals to us is are not flaws inherent in the party-form as such, so much as the limits of a certain kind of party, one founded on a hidebound Leninism. If the Left were to abandon party building altogether there would, quite simply, be no socialist future. All visions of radical change that eschew parties and an active takeover of the state suffer from a principal defect in that they misconceive the nature of class formation—the process by which individuals become aware of their class position and begin to articulate their politics through it. This is presented as a quasi-automatic effect of the capitalist class structure.

But history offers no support for such a view. Class is impactful because it frames the options we have over so many major decisions in our lives—but not so narrowly as to make resistance to one’s employer, or the system behind him, inevitable. Indeed, the extreme vulnerability of workers under capitalism means that individualised modes of coping tend to be more commonplace than collective action. That’s why socialist consciousness has been the exception rather than the norm in the global history of capitalism, and exceedingly rare in the absence of a well-organised party. As Panitch argued with the force of a life’s work—parties make classes as much as they are made by them.

Thankfully, an outright repudiation of the party-form is not really where we are at in South Africa. The variant of movementism which took hold here, and which has revived in the aftermath of the NUMSA moment, was not really this more extreme kind, which denies the ultimate need for a party. Rather what it advocates is a downgrading of the role of party building or its deferral to some indefinite future.

What seems to be the common premise for this position is that party building can only succeed when perfectly timed to the right “objective conditions” —conditions which are only likely to form in the wake of a rupture moment defined by intensified street-level mobilisation. Only the transformation of mass consciousness brought about by such an episode of struggle can furnish the base for a party. Moreover, efforts to “impose” a party on the working class before this are liable to be rejected by its most conscious and active layers. Cut off from nourishing energy of grassroots movements, they are likely to grow in authoritarian directions. The task of socialists in the present, therefore, is devote ourselves to strengthening movements, and hope that a party may gestate from within them in some future context.

Related but distinguishable from this, is an ingrained hostility on the South African Left towards electoral politics. This view tends to draw a sharp line between the electoral arena and movements. While movements unlock popular power by sensitising their participants to their potential for collective action, elections offer no such platform for consciousness-raising. Instead, they tend to reproduce the atomisation of liberal democracy, and to fortify the myth that progress is possible within it. Moreover, movements which take the electoral road subject themselves to debilitating pressures. The logic of getting the vote tends to conflict with the logic of grassroot mobilisation, and all too often to overwhelm it.

Movementist positions contain many insights. It is wise, for example, to be attuned to the importance of ruptural breaks—the likelihood that we will ever get to a mass party simply through a molecular accretion of our ranks is slim. But the contention that movement building alone is the best way to prepare for such a rupture fails to take seriously the inherent weaknesses of social movements.

Of the numerous movements which sustained the first era of “protest” in post-Apartheid South Africa virtually none remain (barring one major exception). New ones have of course cropped up, and a tide of less organised community protests has continued unabated across the country. But these show equally little likelihood of autonomously cohering into anything bigger or more resilient.

It’s now very hard to avoid the conclusion that their failures resulted from internal rather than external factors. The model underpinning them rested on localised mobilisation around immediate demands, while actively eschewing efforts to politicise a leadership layer. Some of their more excitable proponents portrayed them as crucibles of anti-capitalism, in which the mere experience of collective decision making offered a form of political education beyond what traditional forms of Left organisation could hope to match.

But in doing so they exhibited the same fallacious thinking about class formation that informs all ventures aimed at “changing the world without taking power.” Much less a break with capitalism, it’s not clear that social movements even succeeded in getting most of their members to question their loyalty to the ANC. That left them prone to demobilisation and disorganisation when circumstances changed, when defeats where incurred or when key individuals drifted off or were co-opted.

One strategic upshot of this critique is that the trade-off between movement and party building posited by movementists is a false one. It’s likely that there is no winning formula for transforming single issue mobilisations into lasting, mass organisations without NGOifying them. But what we can do is to ensure that the small advances made by movements each time they arise are not dissipated. After all—the notion that struggle develops consciousness is not a false, what movementists get wrong is overstating the extent to which it does so organically. Virtually every movement throws up militant leaders, who stand to become tribunes for socialist politics if they can be identified, recruited and supported appropriately. This is work that a party is best suited to undertake.

But facing up to the limits of social movements should lead us to even stronger conclusions than this. It should lead us to question the overwhelming strategic significance that they have been accorded in the politics of the “independent left.” If movements are tough to sustain and to politicise, they may not be the vehicles best suited to bringing about a political rupture or ensuring that it outcome favors the Left.

Of course this was a strategic orientation that was largely foisted on us by circumstance. The stranglehold that the Tripartite Alliance (whose third member is the Congress of South African Trade Unions) exercised on organised labour and mass politics generally left little room for an alternative. But the situation has changed. The factionalisation of the ANC, the split in COSATU and the emergence of its rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, have created an opening for a more militant socialism to regain a foothold in organised labour. This ought to be the clear priority of socialists.

For all its infirmities, the union movement still presents a much more promising site for grounding socialist politics in a mass base. Although this may not hold for much longer, unions remain mass membership organisations with considerable resources. Most importantly, and most differently from social movements, they have access to structural power (i.e, the power to withdraw labour and shut down the economy). Here is one insight of Leninism which time has not invalidated– that our project will most likely fail unless that structural power is at its center.

If organised labour is once again to become our strategic focal point, this strengthens the case for not consigning the party to an intangible future. The synergies between party-building and organisation building are arguably stronger in the case of unions than social movements. At a fairly abstract level, one reason for this is that union building (or revitalisation) typically relies on a few individuals being prepared to take bold action out of moral conviction. Marxists have often argued something very different—that shopfloors collectivise as soon as workers wake up to their material interests. But narrow self-interest is unlikely to ever motivate someone to take the first steps towards organising their co-workers, since doing so incurs enormous risks but yields no extra benefit—the essence of the “free-rider” problem.

Thus, it’s not a coincidence that so often in history, socialists of various stripes have been significantly overrepresented among the “militant minority.” The values that draw people to the banner of socialism are often the same as those that move them to action against workplace injustices. It’s also not a coincidence that a militant minority is more likely to take shape when socialist ideas are more prominent in the public realm.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at  least broadly resembles a party. Without one we have no real means of translating strategic debates into action—of coordinating our energies towards the tasks most likely to yield long-term gains.

There’s therefore a case for not delaying in building a fighting organisation, that tries to cohere leading militants from workplace and community struggles around a socialist program. But such an organisation should do more. As soon as it has the numbers needed, it should seek to involve itself in elections. In all likelihood it would have to start at the local level, and logic would dictate that it seeks out community and social movement partners in doing so. But as quickly as possible is should seek to graduate to the national stage. South Africa’s unusually proportional representation electoral system (which was in fact designed to provide space for smaller parties), makes this a reasonable short-term goal.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party.

The first thing that sceptics of this strategy tend to get wrong is that they overstate, or misunderstand, the legitimacy problem facing formal political institutions. The SRWP seems to think that any worker with lingering attachments to electoral politics is suffering from “false consciousness.” But in our current circumstances, there is nothing the least bit irrational about remaining invested in the electoral arena, even while recognising the severity of its class bias. The simple reason for that, is that there is no existing social force capable of challenging state power while remaining entirely outside its institutions, nor does one show any prospect of coming into being in any foreseeable horison. Worker organisations in SA are locked a desperate defensive struggle—not preparing to set up a parallel state.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

It’s thus not surprising that despite the tremendous alienation produced by decades of neoliberalism, electoral movements in the West have been able to engineer a political realignment that was much deeper than what post-2008 movements were able to achieve on their own. Their location within the domain of mainstream politics provided both visibility but also a kind of credibility—they promised to take over the institutions in front of us, rather than replace them with ones we can’t see and can’t yet imagine. Several of these examples stood the movementist model on its head. Rather than an electoral breakthrough growing out of a period of intensified movement activity, it was the electoral arena itself that has delivered the rupture moment, the energy from which can then be filtered down to social and labour struggles.

In the process they challenged another fallacy of movementism—that the electoral arena is entirely inimical to a politics of struggle. Sanders, Corbyn, and others imbued their campaigns with a spirit of insurgency that succeeded in appealing to many otherwise turned off by politics, particularly among younger generations. Rather than sucking energy from the streets, these examples provided a renewed model of “class struggle elections” —not their own invention but one that had faded from the Left’s repertoire during the era of movementism.

Class struggle elections seek to deliberately leverage electoral campaigns, and political office itself, to bolster movements. They use every platform available to raise awareness of, and encourage solidarity with, labour and social struggles. In doing so they try to inculcate the understanding that radical policies can only be won with an inside-outside strategy, in which legislators are supported and pushed forward by powerful movements. At the same time they use campaigns as tools of organisation building.

They recruit and deploy a mass of activist to spread a socialist message, and simultaneously try to develop those activists by building political education into their activities. Done properly, this can bridge the gaps that supposedly separate movement from electoral organising, infusing the latter with a powerful sense of collectivity. That’s why so many thousands of young Americans (to pick a recent example), were politically activated through their involvement in the Sanders campaign, which became a gateway to organising in their workplaces, campuses and communities.

Note that this is completely different to the SRWP’s narrowly propagandistic approach to elections which didn’t promote social struggles so much as fantasies of revolution, whilst denouncing ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a sham and doing nothing to actually win. After a predictably disastrous outcome, the party chose to compound the embarrassment, and feed into a profoundly dangerous trend by denouncing South Africa’s independent election management body and claiming the result was rigged.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

Contrast its subsequent marginalisation with the early trajectory with the Economic Freedom Fighters (now South Africa’s third-largest party), which leveraged the electoral know-how of its ex-ANCYL cadre and Malema’s media savvy to run an enormously successful first campaign. It then built on the success, steadily expanding its vote share each cycle, while using parliamentary office to bolster its national profile. Sadly it drifted off the orbit of the Left along the way. But the two diverging cases provide an obvious lesson: if elections are to be useful to us, we have to show that we are capable of succeeding in them. If we can’t, how on earth will we convince anyone that we’re capable of transforming society from its roots up?

None of this is to suggest that the concerns movementists raise about electoral politics are meritless. Its unquestionably true that electoral competition imposes its own logic, which can be ruinous if it totally subsumes the party’s strategic purview. We can trace the decline of many a worker’s party, at least proximately, to misguided efforts to capture middle-class votes by abandoning a politics of class antagonism. But all socialist strategising in our dismal conjuncture is the consideration of perilous alternatives. Far better for us to confront the dangers of succumbing to a narrow electoralism than the near certitude of permanent marginalisation should we choose to abstain from mainstream politics altogether.

The NUMSA moment may have come and gone. But the many elements of the broader conjuncture which produced it, and which seemed to augur a new direction for socialist politics, persist. The Alliance coalition is in the doldrums. Expecting its inevitable demise is of course a pastime of which we “independent leftists” should now be wary. But the material facts this time really are different. The state faces a fiscal crisis that President Cyril Ramaphosa has neither the wherewithal nor the institutional tools to escape from. His factional opponents preach a “radical economic transformation” that offers nothing whatsoever to workers.

Social strains look set to keep accumulating. But assuming that any crisis they produce will automatically redound to the Left’s benefit would be folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision and the organisational capacity to ensure that class becomes the fault line of social polarisation. And for that we need to face up to the challenge of constructing a new party.

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Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media, but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

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As President Joe Biden begins to get comfortable in the White House, there are those who might say that America, under a democratic system of government, has once again allowed the voice of her people to be heard, and that they have elected a new leader into office. Some might go so far as to say that the world’s most affluent democracy has once again proved that government of the people, by the people, for the people is alive and well.

But just below the surface, there are questions deserving of a deeper examination. One is how narrow the margins of victory were. For while it is true that President Biden won the highest number of votes in American electoral history, it is also true that President Trump won the second-highest number of votes in American electoral history; 10 million more people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did so in 2016. Mr Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 0.48 per cent, while that in Arizona was 0.63 per cent. Further, even as the Democrats belatedly won a majority in the Senate, again by the finest of margins, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives actually narrowed. Why, if the choice was so clear, were margins so narrow?

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy – not merely because true democracy has never existed, but because even that imperfect form of democracy that characterises modern politics long perished in America. The United States today is in fact a corporatocracy; mega-corporations rule the country, a polite way of saying that that nation is now a plutocracy. This development is not really new – wealth has always, eventually, determined leadership, in America and elsewhere.

This article attempts – colossally log-in-eye, and at a distance of thousands of miles, admittedly – to furnish proof of the existence of this plutocracy; to demonstrate the effects of this plutocracy on American life and politics; and to establish whether there is any way out of the present morass.

That America is a plutocracy

A total of US$14 billion (KSh1.4 trillion) was spent on campaigns in the US this year, twice as much as in 2016. Where is this money coming from?

In 2010, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision called Citizens United that allowed unions, corporations and associations to spend unlimited amounts in elections provided they would not coordinate their efforts with a candidate. As a result, political action committees (or PACs – private organisations established to raise money in support of a candidate or an issue) morphed into Super PACs that could receive unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. The effect was immediate: in 2012 non-party outside spending tripled 2008’s total and topped US$1 billion for the first time. Of that amount, Super PACs spent more than US$840 million.

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy.

Yet the amounts spent in 2012 pale in comparison with spending during the 2020 campaign; in October 2020 alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totalled nearly US$1.2 billion. President Joe Biden alone raised US$1.6 billion. President Trump raised US$596 million, itself a significant haul. Given the closely fought nature of the presidential election, it would not be wrong to conclude that money helped tip the scales in favour of the new president. Nor was this true only of the presidential race; it was true across the ballot. Eighty-nine per cent of House races and 71 per cent of Senate races were won by the better financed candidate. The conclusion is clear: money – corporate money – wins American elections.

The effects of the plutocracy on American life

It is all very well and good to conclude that corporate money runs and wins American elections. The issue is what the effect of all this money is on American life. If corporate hegemony is harmless – even beneficial – arguments can be made that it should be left alone. If it is not, however, then that fact should be exposed, and reform commenced.

The American mega-corporation has achieved a number of victories (from a corporate standpoint) that have constituted assaults on the wellbeing of the American people and populace. For example, these corporations have been allowed to outsource American manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. The iPhone, signature product of America’s second largest company by market valuation (Apple), is assembled in Shenzhen. Nike began outsourcing manufacturing in the 1970s; today it has plants in Vietnam and South Korea as well as China. IBM now has more workers in India than in the US. As of April 2012, Walmart’s supply chain included some 30,000 Chinese factories, producing an estimated 70 per cent of all of the goods it sells. This trend has gone on so long that there now exists a portion of the northeastern US, formerly known as the Manufacturing/Steel/Factory Belt, that is now known as the Rust Belt, owing to industrial and economic decline occasioned by outsourcing and the automation of jobs.

Meanwhile, for those jobs that have escaped being shipped overseas, the average wage has been stagnant for 40 years. A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents. To make up for stagnant incomes, American citizens are drowning in private debt (US$14 trillion worth) including mortgages (US$9.44 trillion) and student loans (US$1.5 trillion). Indeed, absolute US household debt was higher in November 2019 than prior to/during the great recession, although the debt-to-income levels during the great recession were higher than the 2019 levels (83 per cent to 73 per cent). High house prices, supported as they are by mortgage lending, coupled with student loans, together mean that new graduates are experiencing “failure to launch”, i.e. the inability to leave one’s parents’ home and start one’s own family.

(We should pause here to note, parenthetically, that the level of any nation’s private debt, and America’s in particular, is a very important metric. The level of private debt was the key indicator that enabled Professor Steve Keen, one of the Bezemer 12, to predict the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007-8, a prediction mainstream/neoclassical economics, quite criminally, failed to make.)

The US$14 trillion of private debt that American citizens owe is owed to the very same mega-corporation class whose wage stagnation has necessitated the need for lending (since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2 per cent per year). Most unfortunately, this wage stagnation is not uniform: the ratio of CEO-to-worker earnings has soared from 21-to-1 in 1965 to 320-to-1 in 2019.

A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.

Has the American mega-corporation been censured by the political class for these excesses? Hardly. In fact, the large American corporation, while using American infrastructure, using some degree of American labour and selling to Americans, is allowed to pretend that it operates outside America, by invoicing from nations with low tax rates, such as Ireland, thereby avoiding paying federal taxes on its income. From 2009-2018, for example, Amazon paid an effective federal tax rate of 3 per cent on profits totalling US$26.5 billion. In 2018 alone, the company received a tax relief of US$129 million dollars on profits of US$11.2 billion. Such is the scale of tax avoidance by American corporations that by 2016 a staggering US$2 trillion in untaxed corporate profits was stashed outside the US, according to the New York Times. (What makes this doubly lamentable is that the Internal Revenue Service tells the American citizen in unambiguous terms that “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)

Corporations, therefore, enjoy egregious advantages. It is in order to keep them that they are so willing to fund political campaigns. In other words, corporations will do everything to avoid paying the taxes that would improve American infrastructure and healthcare (to their own benefit) but spend billions on political campaigns to inoculate themselves from losing the unfair advantages they have carved out for themselves.

The effect of the plutocracy on American politics

The shock election of President Donald Trump in 2016 can be seen as a response to the deleterious effects of corporate hegemony on the American political and economic life. Candidate Trump campaigned as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp”, even though, ironically, he was himself a self-styled billionaire who shipped jobs to China and paid very little in taxes. America was suffering economically. He claimed that the blame for this could be placed squarely on the shoulders of China and immigrants. In an illuminating two-part, three-and-a-half hour 2019 interview with PBS, key Trump campaign advisor Steve Bannon (who was arrested for fraud and then pardoned by President Trump on his last full day in office) stated that the cost of the 2008-09 bailout was loaded onto the American middle class, and that American gig economy millennials are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. Many may disagree with Mr Bannon’s political views, but his statement had its finger on the pulse of post-bank-bailout America. The genius of the Trump campaign was its ability to identify these pain points; to incorrectly but convincingly blame foreigners – locally (immigrants) and abroad (China) – for what were and continue to be the excesses of the plutocracy; to identify the existence of a swamp in Washington and characterise Hillary Clinton as the personification of these ills; and to ride that wave all the way to the White House. The lesson – a lesson seemingly yet unlearned by mainstream politics – is that it actually worked.

Candidates however, campaign in poetry; rulers, on the other hand, govern in prose. During Trump’s presidency Faustian bargains, in Steve Bannon’s words, were made; here again the power of the corporatocracy made itself felt. One of the early indicators of the direction and tenor a presidency will take is a president’s cabinet picks; Steven Mnuchin, yet another ex-Wall Street executive, was placed in charge of the Treasury. While President Trump did not drag the US into another war – in spite of the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassim Soleimani – his presidency did not up-end Washington in ways meaningful to the nation’s citizenry. Readers may recall the US$2 trillion of untaxed corporate profits mentioned earlier; President Trump’s signature legislative achievement was to open new windows for tax rebates for major corporations, reducing taxes on the wealthy. This legislation resulted in the repatriation of US$777 billion in 2018, but the Federal Reserve noted that “the strongest effect of repatriation was on share buybacks” by corporate America. This particular episode is a textbook example of the plutocracy at work.

Trump does not greatly differ in this way from the way in which Candidate Obama contrasts with President Obama. Candidate Obama campaigned on Change We Can Believe In. Yet, once elected, he bailed out the banks (the abiding question on this, some wonder, is why citizens did not retain their houses if the banks’ losses were made good). Obamacare, a very significant advance in the fight for decent healthcare for Americans, did not include a public option although it could have. Nor did President Obama succeed in extricating himself from American warmongering abroad: in a particularly sad and tragic episode he helped end the Libya Gaddaffi had created. Libya under Gaddaffi was a nation that had free university education, free healthcare, no external debt and reserves of US$150 billion – all ideals that America, ironically, declares it wants but has yet to achieve despite its claim to being the richest nation in history. Allied “intervention” replaced that Libya with today’s bombed-out nation, in which incessant internecine strife went on for a decade. This in Africa, the land of Obama’s fathers. Only two years previously, at a location just two hours from Benghazi by air, the new President had given his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, which speech contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

In these two presidencies, we see, microcosmically, the effects of the plutocracy at work: the lofty ideals of the campaigning candidate and the searing needs of the masses, once office is assumed, are replaced by a kind of neutered, ineffective pragmatism, as far as the wellbeing of American citizens is concerned, and a sly and insidious effectiveness where corporate welfare is concerned.

The 2020 campaign

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2020 campaign is that it took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The cost of this pandemic – in the gruesome currency of American lives – has been more than 500,000 dead Americans and counting, nearly 10 times the number of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, and more than the number of American lives lost in World War II.

Uniquely among developed nations, the structure of America’s healthcare system is such that very often one only has healthcare if one is employed. So that when 44 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, they lost their medical cover at precisely the time they most needed it. The pandemic therefore threw into sharp focus the critical importance of having a healthcare system that is not based upon employment.

(Nor is the state of health insurance all that is wrong with American healthcare – in several tragic articles it has been reported that American diabetics have been driving to Canada in caravans to buy insulin – some driving up to 5 hours one way. Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies means that the drug is ten times cheaper in Canada than it is in America.)

The bipartisan response to the pandemic was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that – while it gave individuals with less than US$99,000 a year annual income a check of US$1,200 a month – also gave further tax cuts to the wealthy. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, just 43,000 individual tax filers covered by one of the Act’s provisions would see their tax liability fall by a combined US$70.3 billion in 2020 (or about US$1.7 million each). This is the America that corporatism has created.

And yet, mid-pandemic, was healthcare on the national ballot? How, when pharmaceutical and health product industries have spent a total of US$4.7 billion on lobbying the federal government, US$877 million on state candidates and committees, and US$414 million in the 20 years to 2018? Indeed, by the time he won the nomination, Joe Biden had already said he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it landed on his desk (a colossal if, it must be said), proposing a public option instead.

So what was on the ballot? Democrats, choosing to characterise Trump’s presidency as the problem, instead of seeing it as the natural consequence of the decades of wage stagnation, high healthcare costs, inordinately high levels of private debt, etc., campaigned on the platform of “restoring the soul of America”. The president’s narrow margins of victory perhaps find an explanation here: the problems Americans face were not really on the ballot. And they were not on the ballot because the corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

Is there hope?

There is an American constituency that is in broad agreement on the issues raised above: a Fox News exit poll, for example, showed that 72 per cent of Americans were at least somewhat in favour of changing to a government-run healthcare plan. Florida, a state President Trump won, voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to US$15 an hour.

However, it is unlikely that this broad constituency will be allowed to unite under the current political system. The reality is that the US is a de facto one-party state. If that party were to be honestly named, it might be named the Megacorp Party, or, slightly more genteelly, the Corporatist/Establishment Party. It has two wings: a supposedly left-leaning Democratic wing and a supposedly conservative Republican wing. Under the framework of Citizens United these two wings will continue to swap power ad infinitum. Yet, even as the presidency bounces from party to party, a president from one party will bomb Iraq; the next president, from the other party, will campaign on the platform that he never voted to go to war in Iraq, only to subsequently bomb Libya. These tragic contradictions find their resolution in the fact that this war activity happens at the behest of the military-industrial complex.

Political consultants will keep finding new, misleading ways of “framing the political argument,” creating false choices and developing narratives such as restoring the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, the money that pays them will continue to fortify itself against the needs of the people; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and power will remain with the wealthy.

As long as this continues, we can expect two outcomes. The first is that the issues that Americans need solved will not be solved. (We are now reading, for example, that the US$15 dollars/hour minimum wage President Biden promised (during a presidential debate), is unlikely be included in the US$1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package President Biden intends to bring to Congress.) The second is that, as a result of the failure to resolve these issues, America will, in the words of Robert Reich, continue to produce candidatures like Donald Trump’s as far as the eye can see. The American political system does not contain within itself the mechanism to correct the current malaise. As a result, money will continue to win out: it will continue to select which issues are on the ballot, and it will continue to choose which candidates win. America’s long decline, therefore, is likely to continue.

The corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media (the concentration of media ownership in America is yet another triumph of the plutocracy), but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

I return to the beginning – this article is written colossally log-in-eye. As a Kenyan I know we have major, pressing domestic issues to resolve. If or as we make a detour to examine the American political situation, let our contemplation resemble our use of a mirror, and let our aims be those of helping us to avoid the problems others have experienced, in order to more wisely and speedily resolve our own.

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