Democracy and its discontents: Understanding Kenya’s 2013 elections

Nicholas Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch, Justin Willis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Citations (Scopus)


In the months leading up to Kenya's general election in March 2013, there was much concern – both within Kenya itself and internationally – that political competition would trigger a fresh wave of ethnic violence. However, the 2013 elections passed off largely peacefully, despite an unexpected presidential result and fact that the losing candidate, Raila Odinga, appealed the outcome to the Supreme Court. This article argues that Kenya avoided political unrest as a result of four interconnected processes. A dramatic political realignment brought former rivals together and gave them an incentive to diffuse ethnic tensions; a pervasive ‘peace narrative’ delegitimized political activity likely to lead to political instability; partial democratic reforms conferred new legitimacy on the electoral and political system; and a new constitution meant that many voters who ‘lost’ nationally in the presidential election ‘won’ in local contests. This election thus provides two important lessons for the democratization literature. First, processes of gradual reform may generate more democratic political systems in the long-run, but in the short-run they can empower the political establishment. Second, sacrificing justice on the altar of stability risks a ‘negative peace’ that may be associated with an increased sense of marginalization and exclusion among some communities – raising the prospects for unrest in the future.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2-24
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Eastern African Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014


  • Kenya
  • elections
  • democratization
  • constitutional and institutional reform
  • peace and justice


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