FEATURE11 May 2020

Fair vote share?

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Features Impact Middle East and Africa Public Sector UK

Work to understand electoral manipulation and vote rigging in African democracies was awarded the 2019 MRS President’s Medal and is helping to inform interventions and direct resources to areas most in need. 


In December 2007, Kenyans went to the polls for their presidential election. The opposition leader had been expected to win – he was placed ahead of the incumbent president in every opinion poll bar one – but the ruling party was declared the winner.

The disputed result partly triggered a wave of post-election violence that led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people. Political scientist Professor Nic Cheeseman was in Kenya at the time.

“Being there and seeing the hopes of the election and the destruction after the election, and what it did to the country, made me realise the power and transformative potential of elections, but also the risk if they go wrong,” he says.

Since then, Cheeseman has been working on elections, researching how they can be manipulated by governments to retain power, and how democracies can be strengthened.

In his latest project – alongside colleagues Gabrielle Lynch, Justin Willis and Susan Dodsworth – focusing on Kenya, Uganda and Ghana, the research has concentrated not just on understanding the factors behind elections leading to violence, but also on exploring what can be done to prevent violent outcomes. The team is working with both international and African actors to try to anticipate better where elections may go wrong, and develop contingency plans.

“We wanted to look at the impact of elections on countries, and we were interested in the question of ‘if you participate in a good election, do you become more democratic – do you become a more positive, democratic citizen?’ If you see an election become rigged, do you become more pessimistic, less democratic?”

Uganda has never had a transfer of power, Kenya has had one and Ghana has had many, so the researchers felt these countries would give interesting variations on whether or not citizens had a good experience and how that had affected their views.

This involved nationally representative surveys of 8,500 respondents across the three countries, asking questions about whether participants had seen any election abuse or violence at the last election, and gauging people’s attitudes towards manipulation techniques such as ballot box stuffing or vote buying – because “leaders are more likely to do things that they think they can get away with, with their own populations,” says Cheeseman.

“Often, people don’t see certain things that international standards might think of as being illegitimate,” he explains. “The handout of money might be seen as illegitimate outside a polling station in the US. In some cases in Africa, it might be seen as a transaction – if it’s buying a vote it might be seen as illegitimate, but if it’s for somebody to buy medicine for their child that they might not otherwise get, it might be interpreted as evidence that this person is a good community leader, therefore boosting their chances in the election itself.”

In addition to the quantitative studies, the team also conducted interviews with senior political leaders, journalists, civil society leaders and citizens across Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and several other African countries, as well as in Brazil, Russia, Ukraine and Armenia.

Safeguarding democracy

Cheeseman also developed the deep election monitoring model ahead of the 2013 election in Kenya, which brought together a range of Kenyan and international researchers, including political scientists and anthropologists. The impetus for this was that election observers are “not in the country for that long”, Cheeseman says, “and one of the things we need to do is bring real expertise to the international community and to Kenyan organisations themselves”.

This model allows that group of people to track issues across the election and provide a series of reports and briefings, including to the UK High Commissioner to Kenya and the Department for International Development (DFID), to help understand the political context better, inform policy, and ultimately make interventions and spend money more effectively.

The briefings focused on ‘what was happening in the election and what we thought was likely to happen’ and answering the questions: ‘If it’s going to go wrong, where’s it going to go wrong? What can be done about it, what are the practical steps?’

The team, including Karuti Kanyinga, research professor of development studies at the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Development Studies (IDS), and Mutuma Ruteere, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies, could demonstrate that the major fault lines and areas that could see violence and problems in the 2017 election would be different to the hotspots of the 2013 election because of the changing nature of the parties and coalitions, according to Cheeseman.

“We were able to help people really focus their time and energy and efforts on areas where there were more likely to be problems... Geographically, if we’re going to try to prevent conflict by investing in peace building, where do we invest? Areas that might previously have been hotspots might actually turn out to be safe areas.”

Additionally, being able to pinpoint areas of the electoral system that might be most likely to break down – and how that had changed across the elections – helped to focus priorities in order to attempt to prevent the potential breakdown from happening. “It’s not that we know everything, and we go in and the policymakers don’t – it’s that we were collaborating to help them see something they didn’t see, but also to become more confident about things that maybe they had always had a judgement about but hadn’t felt completely confident to do because they needed a robustness check or another opinion.”

The voting risk reports have also shaped the plans of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a UK body that aims to promote democracy abroad, helping the organisation to manage risk and plan interventions.

“We developed a framework through which they could think about how they supported legislatures and parties, which approaches would be most risky, and which would be the safer ones,” says Cheeseman. The organisation then built that into the way it planned research, and can use it to narrow down a big set of potential interventions and establish those ones in which to invest.

Cheeseman, Lynch, Willis and Dodsworth were awarded the President’s Medal at the 2019 MRS Awards for their research on election rigging and manipulation strategies.

This article was first published in the April 2020 issue of Impact.