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Research Examines Perception of African Authoritarian Rulers by Electorate

Candidates with Authoritarian Pasts Find Homes in Kenyan Parliament

A new study by researchers at the AU School of Public Affairs (SPA) examined trends in Kenyan elections since 1992, when the country had its first multi-party contests. Their analysis revealed that voters are not consistently bothered by candidates with authoritarian pasts.

The findings of the study by SPA Associate Professor Adrienne LeBas and Kyle Gray, SPA/PhD ’22, were recently published in an article, “Authoritarian Experience and Electoral Success: The Fate of Authoritarian Diasporans in Kenya,” in the journal Democratization.

Despite election turnover in many African countries, the continent’s politics remains dominated by leaders who left former authoritarian ruling parties only to regain power by aligning with their rivals. This is the case in Kenya: after the defeat of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) in 2002, the party declined. Still, citizens there have only elected former top KANU officials to the office of president and deputy president, and cabinet membership significantly overlaps with that of the former party.

Gray helped build a large data set for the study that contained all candidates for national assembly in the past 30 years. The researchers wanted to assess the continued popularity of the authoritarian diaspora further down the ballot. They discovered former KANU officials made up a sizeable proportion of candidates in parliamentary elections, and were more successful in winning election than new political entrants.

“People do not consistently seem to penalize former members of the ruling party – even if they have been engaged in political violence and oppression,” says Gray, who worked on the project as LeBas’ research assistant. “You might think if somebody has the stain of the former ruling party, they might be less successful than those who are clean – but these candidates actually tend to do better than the new entrants.”

This exploratory research project didn’t examine the reason behind this trend, but one possibility could be that connections to the former ruling party gives candidates more resources than others. These results have broad implications for the understanding of democratization; the researchers hope future studies will consider this approach comparatively, to see if it applies to other countries and regions.

While the focus is often on ensuring free and fair elections, Gray says the findings reveal the need to be careful about inferring the quality of democracy simply because election day goes off without a hitch. Although there is democratic turnover, former rulers can remain pervasive throughout the system.

This is the first publication for Gray, who is pursuing other projects generated from work on his dissertation and holds research interests in social cohesion, intergroup conflict, and newly democratizing states. He received his bachelor’s degree from the College of William & Mary and his master’s degree in public policy from the University of Maryland in College Park.