A new way to vote in Kenya’s primary elections has drawn both praise and criticism from politicians and voters in the country. In January, the Jubilee party alliance introduced “smart cards” to Kenyan voters as a new, technologically savvy way to participate in the election. The cards, which are plastic and contain individualized bar codes for each voter, serve as an attempt to minimize voter fraud and illegitimate government intrusion. They are only being used for citizens who are voting for members of the Jubilee party.
Some Kenyan leaders, including the President and his deputy, are hopeful that the cards will create credibility in the primary elections. The presidential elections in 2007-2008 were tarnished by claims of both voter manipulation and government interference. These allegations led to mass displays of violence in the country which took hundreds of lives.
The smart cards include each voter’s name, address, and age. Issues with them have already sprung up in Kenya, including a shortage of cards, the emergence of fake cards, and the inability to spread them to rural areas.
Critics are skeptical of both the efficacy of the cards and the true reason behind their implementation. One glaring issue with the new voter cards is their cost. Each card is twenty Kenyan shillings.
Those running for office in the party can purchase the cards themselves, with no limit to the number they can buy, and disperse them according to their own discretion. Wealthier incumbents, therefore, can purchase more cards and, in turn, give them to wealthier voters.
Aspirants who are poorer cannot afford to spend as much money on the cards and fear that they will lose votes because of this. Some believe this process will elect representatives with only the intention to serve the rich.
Smart cards also require a smartphone or computer to activate. This is troubling for Kenyans who don’t have this technology, Kenyans who are not wealthy. The Jubilee party, which was founded in early 2016 when eleven like-minded parties merged, is already associated by many Kenyans with wealth and power.
The Jubilee party’s wealthy member’s near monopolization of the ability to vote, and the exclusion of Kenyans with less wealth, is suggestive that a new political class is forming in Kenya.
174 of Kenya’s 290 representatives belong to the Jubilee party, a striking majority. The new card system benefits these incumbents because, after their time in the legislative arm, they have accumulated more wealth than many aspirants who are attempting to challenge them.
This dynamic, ever growing accumulation of power and the fusion of elites within Kenya, complement Richard Sklar’s idea of class in Africa. Sklar theorizes that real class relations are based on power rather than production, and the power to vote is a particularly compelling one.
Wealthy incumbents, known to some as “hippos” are attaching a monetary value to the ability to vote, effectively eliminating a poorer voting pool. Giving a political party, one that holds majority control of both the legislative and executive arms of government, the power to distribute (or abstain from distributing in some cases) their own ballots infringes on the voting rights of Kenyans.
One mega party that decides, through economic means, who gets to vote and who doesn’t is a clear indication of restricting liberty. Politicians and citizens alike should keep their eye on the Jubilee party.
Madeline Karp studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.