A paradox: Better educated Africans love the idea of democracy, so why don't they vote?

'I hate being in the middle class, how I wish I was not in the middle class': New research turns accepted thinking on its head.

EDUCATION is supposed to lead to the deepening of democracy, crucial to the emergence of civic culture and participation.

It’s a tenet that is essentially taken for granted – that better educated citizens are good for democracy. Education gives people the cognitive skills to critically understand politics and resource distribution, so helps people make rational political choices.

Going through the school system also gives people an appreciation for opinions different from their own, thus broadening one’s outlook and increasing openness and tolerance – all key pillars of the conventional understanding of democracy.

But research does not back up this popular view. One  paper by four professors drawn from Harvard, MIT and Columbia Business School argued that although countries with a high educational level do show correspondingly high levels of public participation in the democratic process, there is no relationship between the two as a particular country gets more educated. 

In other words, if you follow the same country over a period of time, increasing the levels of education does not necessarily result in a tendency to have more democratic processes or institutions.

Now,  a new working paper from Afrobarometer actually argues that increasing levels of education within the same country decreases political participation if the regime is a quasi-democracy or electoral autocracy, the kind that holds regular elections but without a chance of any real impact on entrenched interests.

Taking Zimbabwe as an example, the researchers studied the political participation and attitudes of different groups of citizens who had varying educational levels.

Zimbabwe is an electoral autocracy and was a particularly good case study because immediately after independence in 1980, it implemented far-reaching reforms greatly increasing educational access at secondary level.

That makes it possible to measure the attitudes of the different age groups as they went further in school, contrasting the cohorts that were just young enough to benefit from expanded school access in the 1980s to those who were just too old as a “natural experiment” of sorts.

They found that although better-educated citizens did indeed have a better ability to engage in civic life, and were more likely to support democracy and reject authoritarianism, they chose to deliberately disengage “as a form of protest”. They were less likely to vote, contact their local councillor or attend community meetings.

The study showed that a one-unit increase in education attainment reduces voting by 11 percentage points, contacting a local councillor by nine percentage points, attending a community meeting by nine percentage points, and raising an issue by three percentage points.

This is because although electoral autocracies allow some popular participation and elite contestation by holding elections, they fall far short of genuine democracy.

In electoral autocracies, elections are actually not designed to enable citizen voice or really measure popular preferences; by contrast, authoritarian regimes compel participation “as a demonstration of allegiance”, and serve to legitimise incumbents, appease the international community and demonstrate the omnipresence of the regime.

Under such conditions, where your vote is likely to be futile (but you will be counted as part of the voter turnout), better-educated citizens choose to disengage from politics, as participating will give the exercise a veneer of legitimacy.

Higher premium
Education may also lead to value change, with more-educated individuals placing a higher premium on values such as self-expression and individual voice than on social conformity, and so shun the “cheerleading” of incumbents that is associated with quasi-democracies.

In Zimbabwe’s 2008 election, in which opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai put up a credible challenge to President Robert Mugabe, the disengagement of educated citizens was decidedly weaker than before – and returned in the 2013 election when the opposition was in a shambles.

It corroborates the idea that educated citizens will re-engage with politics when the political sphere allows for more meaningful contestation, which can be taken as evidence that educated citizens consciously choose to withdraw from the political sphere under electoral authoritarianism.

similar study in the attitudes of middle-class Kenyans also showed that the middle-class (who also tend to be better educated, and wealthier than the majority of the population) is much more likely to uphold democracy as an ideal, and more likely to be critical of the government.

The proportion of highly educated Kenyans who strongly agree that the president should be free to act without constraints is roughly half (6%) the number of uneducated Kenyans who hold the same view (12%), and while more than two-thirds of highly educated Kenyans welcome multi-partyism (68%), a majority of uneducated Kenyans see political parties as divisive (51%).

Easily chipped
But the prominence of ethnicity in Kenya’s politics complicates the consolidation of democratic attitudes, and the middle class’ commitment to democracy is not constant over time, easily chipped away by the holding of a national election.

Ruto and Uhuru during 2013 Kenya election campaigns (Photo/AFP)

Taking the 2013 election as a case study, which president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto campaigned under a cloud of hostility and criticism from human rights organisations and the international community over their cases at the International Criminal Court.

The two sought to overcome the skepticism of “fence-sitters” in their own communities by setting out to create a siege mentality within the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups.

“This involved a deliberate strategy of demonising the ICC, foreign donors, and [main opposition candidate] Raila Odinga by depicting them as co-conspirators in an international plot to undermine Kenyan sovereignty,” researcher Nic Cheeseman says.

Civil society activists calling for Kenyatta and Ruto to be barred from vying  “were branded unpatriotic ‘sell-outs’ by radical Jubilee activists. Worse was in store for critical Kikuyu and Kalenjin commentators, who were labelled traitors, willing to betray their own communities to the enemy.”

More pressure
It increased the pressure on those in the middle class who may have found the idea of voting for Kenyatta and Ruto distasteful.

Based on a number of diary entries from a number of young Kikuyu throughout the campaign, the research describes “the key moments at which they felt the need to switch from supporting third-placed presidential hopefuls to supporting one of the two favourites.”

Early on in the campaign, one informant writes in his diary, “If I vote for PK [Peter Kenneth], I will effectively express my displeasure at the current system. I will be voting for a proven performer. Everyone knows that [Peter Kenneth’s] Gatanga constituency is one of the most developed. So it’s not because PK [is a Kikuyu].”

Yet as the campaign wore on, the tension over whether to be loyal to one’s ethnic group or the public good began to eat away at his informant’s confidence, leading to periods of intense soul searching: “I hate being in the middle class, how I wish I was not in the middle class.”

In the end, the Kenyatta-Ruto alliance won, largely on the back of solid ethnic bloc voting.

Thus Zimbabwe and Kenya represent different dilemmas for educated, middle-class citizens. The overt authoritarianism of Zimbabwe leads to disengagement as a form of protest. But in Kenya, the salience of ethnicity leads to a schizophrenic relationship with democracy.

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