By Samira Sawlani
I was too young to vote in the UK’s 1997 election, yet it comes to mind as being one of the first polls which held my interest.
This was largely due to the fact that the lead up to the polls was the dominant media story, those elections were the central topic in conversations adults around me were having, and despite my young age, I could feel the palpable energy around in a country which wanted change.
At the time of the 1997 elections, the Conservative Party had been in power for eighteen years, an era which spanned the premiership of Margaret Thatcher and the man who went on to succeed her, John Major.
By the time 1997 arrived I had managed to understand that for those around me, a Conservative win was unwanted and unlikely due to the party’s many scandals, problematic policies and a history rooted in prejudice.
Based on media coverage the perception of the party and its leadership was that of stagnant and without a vision for the future, the United Kingdom needed something new, a visionary leader, and that was what the Labour party was offering in the form of their leader; Tony Blair.
“Tony Blair was seen as a new kind of politician with enormous charisma, arguably the finest opposition leader of modern times”, is how the British Government website describes Mr Blair.
In the lead up to that election Blair campaigned ferociously “Tony Blair’s relentless tour of the country in which he visited 74 places in 60 constituencies during 34 days of campaigning, covering 9,168 miles by road, rail and air” stated one article in British newspaper The Independent.
He was everywhere.
The Blair version of The Labour Party had re-branded itself as ‘New Labour’, distancing itself from traditional socialist values, it was more centrist and aimed to appeal to ‘Middle England’, white collar workers, people whose values aligned with the Conservative Party, but were tired of its leadership.
To put it bluntly, the party’s preparation and campaigning for the 1997 election was an exercise in rebranding and marketing, and it worked.
Blair won the 1997 election with a parliamentary landslide, winning the biggest majority held by any government since 1935.
Ironically, in 2003, that same marketing prowess and usage of spin would see Blair convince Members of Parliament to support the UK joining the US-led invasion of Iraq, claiming that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had a weapons of mass destruction programme.
A move which saw the beginning of the end of his leadership, tarnishing his legacy and causing death and destruction.
It is for this reason that the 1997 election remains etched in my memory, because it raised questions regarding what shapes our voting behaviours and patterns.
Having watched news coverage of American Elections it always seemed as if there was so much emphasis upon the ‘image’ of a Presidential candidate, an almost celebrity element to it or a popularity contest.
That had never seemed to be the case in British politics, yet in 1997 there was The Labour Party, somehow trying to be sexy, shifting not only in policies but in actual ideologies in order to win votes.
In my adult years I have followed, covered and observed elections worldwide and I still return to that 1997 UK poll as one which forms part of a lens through which I look at outcomes.
What determines how or even if we vote? Do we read manifestos? Do we base our decision on which candidate sits closest to the ideology we believe in? Do we look at the individual rather than party? What factor does the race, religion and socio-economic status of any given candidate play when casting our votes? And just how many of us can look beyond the spin? Beyond the sex appeal? Beyond the nice outfits, first-spouse and children by their side, their ability to stop at a stall in a market and eat a local delicacy like ‘the common man’, and ability to deliver goosebump inducing speeches?
In 2013 I was in Kenya for the Country’s general election.
This was to be the first under the new constitution which was adopted in 2010 and more importantly, the first since the 2007 post-election violence.
The election was set to be a close contest between Uhuru Kenyatta and his running-mate William Ruto and Raila Odinga and his running-mate Kalonzo Musyoka.
Ruto and Kenyatta were among four Kenyans indicted by the International Criminal Court for their alleged role in orchestrating post-election violence in 2007–08.
Despite this, they had been cleared by the Kenyan courts to vie in the polls.
Once more I thought back to those 1997 polls in the UK and wondered, what kind of campaign strategies would need to be adopted to see two people wanted by the International Criminal Court, win an election?
In the case of Kenya many political analysts cite voting along ethnic and regional lines as a practice among some parts of the population.
What would determine how people were going to vote this time round?
Much of the rhetoric around the polls was of Kenyatta and Ruto being portrayed as victims of the International Criminal Court, rather than the villains the case against them suggested.
Billboard of the two men stood next to each other smiling could be seen across the Country with the slogan ‘I believe’.
Furthermore their campaign team recognised the power of social media, “The Kenyatta campaign saw two uses for social media.
There was the conventional approach where the outlets were used to put out official campaign material.
Because such forums are not mediated by editors, they were used to spread propaganda about the process that led to the pair being indicted in The Hague, rallying their core supporters into believing there was a conspiracy afoot and that it was not a purely judicial process” wrote Murithi Mutiga.
Kenyatta was declared winner securing 50.07% of the vote; while many factors may have determined this outcome, it is fair to say that good PR and spin played its part.
Almost 10-years since that election (and 5 years since the last one), Kenyans are set to go to polls in 2022.
Kenyatta’s second (and in theory, final) term is set to end, for some he will be remembered as the president whose administration oversaw the skyrocketing of corruption, debt and state sanctioned looting.
For his supporters and those that have benefited from his time in office he may be considered a worthy leader who has carried on his father’s legacy.
Kenyans who in 2013 were close to the age I was in 1997 will be eligible to vote for the first time in 2022.
As the country reflects on the last few years, this demographic has not only seen the impact of the current Government’s policies, but has also witnessed its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
So, will they be voting? And what will determine their vote?
19-year-old Sophia has just graduated from high school in Nairobi, for her, voting in the 2022 polls is a non-negotiable matter, “During this pandemic we saw people’s lives were at stake, yet greed and lust for money were more of a priority for those in power.
Therefore, I believe 2022 will be an extremely important and crucial election for Kenya, as it can transform the shape of this Country.”
In contrast 22 year old Stacy Adongo is unsure about whether she will vote in 2022, “I’m on the fence on whether I will vote or not.
I feel there may be no reason to actually vote in this Country. With all the lack of integrity witnessed in previous elections, it may seem that my vote is not factored in at all.”
Adongo says she may have felt differently about 2022 and its importance if “malpractice was not the norm when it comes to Kenyan elections”.
Similarly 20 year old student Jennifer Wairimu Muhoro remains undecided about whether she will be casting her vote, “I don’t believe my vote will change anything, I would like to see a change in leadership and governance structure but I am not naïve enough to expect that in
2022. It remains a pipe dream until systems will be changed completely.”
While the current political landscape and systems within it are proving to be an almost demotivating factor for some potential voters and creating a degree of voter apathy, for others they are a reason to vote.
One 23 year old student based in Voi is adamant he will vote because “under the current administration there is a lot of corruption, mismanagement of public funds and misplaced priorities in terms of resource distribution and allocation, thus change will only be achieved through voting in the right leaders.”
When asked about what factors will determine who they ultimately vote for, Mombasa based entrepreneur Jamila Hassan there is an urgent need for young Kenyans to base their votes on policies and what leaders stand for, she wants to see an end to electing leaders based on ethnic lines or how well they market themselves “I was hugely disappointed when Boniface Mwangi did not win the MP vote for Starehe in 2017.
That was the moment where I felt that we as Kenyans need to take a look at ourselves and I knew that when I got the opportunity to vote I would take it.”
Hassan says friends of hers have displayed some level of voter apathy, however she has urged them that when the time comes to read party manifestos, listen to leaders and vote;
“In our two previous elections Kenyatta and Odinga got the most votes, but there were people who voted for other candidates who are not part of the old guard.
Your vote may not ultimately determine the winner, but it will illustrate how we as a country are changing in terms of what determines our vote.
In some European countries far right, racist parties may not be winning elections, but the amount of votes they get while losing tells us a lot.”
The idea of ‘principles over personalities’ when electing leaders is a noble one, however in an age of spin, social media, governments hiring PR companies and our own inherent biases, it certainly is a difficult one to follow.
Samira Sawlani is a freelance journalist, writer and analyst. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Continent, Al Jazeera and The Elephant