Voters rarely appear in the story of African democracy. Accounts of democracy “withering” across the continent often focus on entrenched “big men” who manipulate constitutions to stay in power for decades or elected leaders who push back on democracy promotion by Western governments.

Far less is known about how voters themselves think their democracies should function. But a new poll conducted by Twaweza, a civil society organization working across East Africa with which we are involved, makes clear that voters in one African country want a greater say in selecting their leaders.

In Kenya, elections for all levels of government, including the president, parliament and local officials, will be held in August next year. There, voters are at the center of a national debate about one of the most fundamental aspects of modern democracy: selecting candidates for office.

Here’s the controversy 

In May and June, the country’s main opposition, the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), organized protests in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. CORD demanded the resignation of senior officials of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). Opposition supporters accuse the IEBC, which essentially counts ballots and verifies election results, of being biased in favor of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his ruling coalition, the Jubilee alliance.

Since then, Kenya’s national controversy over who should be counting votes has morphed into a broader debate about who should be selecting candidates in the first place.

After the return of multiparty politics to the country in 1992, candidates for office have usually been chosen directly by party leaders. And those party leaders often appear to subvert the rules laid out in party constitutions. Even when parties have conducted primary elections to select their candidates, the process has been so marred by allegations of fraud and intimidation that few observers believe the results reflect party members’ preferences.

The country’s main parties are now battling over how party nominations will be conducted for next year’s elections. Intraparty conflict has delayed the timeline for confirming nominations and raised doubts about how nominations are to be conducted. The debate centers on two important issues: how should candidates be selected and who should oversee the process.

In response to these controversies, both the Jubilee leader, Uhuru Kenyatta, and the opposition CORD leader, Raila Odinga, have publicly stated that their parties will no longer nominate candidates without competition. Kenyatta has stated that his party will invite the IEBC to manage its nominations to guarantee transparency and fairness. The opposition is divided on whether it can trust the IEBC to handle their primaries.

How do Kenyan voters want candidates for office selected?

Data collected by Twaweza can answer that question. As part of its Sauti za Wananchi (Voices of Citizens) nationally representative survey, Twaweza asked 1,800 randomly selected Kenyans to answer questions related to the candidate selection debate: Which method would you want your own favorite party to use in selecting the candidate for your constituency? Who do you think should be responsible for making sure party candidates are selected fairly? The responses to these questions reveal that Kenyans want to play a greater role in their democracy.

Kenyans want U.S.-style primaries

We asked respondents to choose a preferred method for nominating candidates from these options:

  • the national party leader directly nominates the candidate;
  • the local party officers select the candidate;
  • a closed primary in which only party members in a constituency vote;
  • an open primary in which every registered voter in the constituency votes.

About 66 percent of survey respondents said they want to vote in primary elections. Fewer than 18 percent said they want their national or local party leaders to select candidates. Only about 16 percent said they did not know or had no opinion.

These results challenge the notion that somehow democracy in Africa is constrained because voters are culturally predisposed to following “big men.” There is a widespread perception in Kenya that the current nomination system is broken, with sloppily organized primaries held in some constituencies and handpicked candidates appointed directly by party leaders in others. But the majority of Kenyan voters clearly want to help select their parties’ candidates.

Kenyans are becoming partisan voters

We can conclude that because respondents picked a candidate selection method in a way that appears consistent with party affiliation.

Supporters of the opposition CORD prefer closed primaries (46 percent) over open primaries (32 percent); supporters of the president’s Jubilee coalition tend to prefer open primaries (35 percent) over closed primaries (29 percent).

These differences may come from the contrasting political experiences of these party’s supporters. CORD supporters may prefer closed primaries because they’ve spent many years opposed to a government they feel excludes them.

Kenyans are divided on who should manage candidate selection

We asked respondents to tell us who should oversee the nominations process: the parties themselves; the IEBC; a domestic NGO; or an international NGO. Once again, partisan differences influence their choices.

CORD supporters (48 percent) want the parties themselves to oversee nominations. Jubilee supporters (47 percent) want the IEBC to oversee nominations. Only 15 percent of respondents were unable to express a preference. Again, these differences may come from partisans’ different political experiences.

Opposition sympathizers tend to believe that in 2007, their candidate, Raila Odinga, had the presidential election stolen from him by IEBC. As a result, CORD voters may well prefer to have their party manage the nominations process, distrusting the government’s electoral management. Jubilee supporters obviously have no such concerns.

Will popular demand for primaries influence how the parties approach the Kenya’s 2017 elections? There’s no way to know. Both Jubilee and CORD will nominate candidates in the early part of next year. Neither party has yet offered a detailed plan for how they will conduct those nominations.

What we do know is that the answers will influence the strength and stability of Kenya’s democracy.

Leonardo R. Arriola is an associate professor of political science and director of the Center for African Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Donghyun Danny Choi is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley.

Victor Rateng is a senior program officer at Twaweza East Africa.