US & World

Two Politicians Separated by Continents, United by Democracy

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Last summer, a city council candidate from Nairobi got advice from the president of the Los Angeles City Council. This week, the two men have been thinking a lot about democracy: in the United States, where Iowa held its presidential caucus on Thursday night; and in Kenya, where people have been murdered after its presidential race.

Kitty Felde: You might remember the budding Kenyan politician Charles Atula.

Eric Garcetti: Hi, Charles. Eric Garcetti.

Felde: Atula was in Los Angeles this summer. L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti sat down with him to discuss what went wrong the last time Atula ran for Nairobi City Council.

Charles Atula: My opponent bribed people, and actually it worked very negatively on me, so I lost.
Garcetti: I had 12 different negative propaganda pieces against me.

Felde: Atula did better the second time around. Last week, he won his election.

Garcetti: Charles, I am so happy for you. You earned this victory. It was an incredibly difficult election.
Charles: Thank you very much for a wonderful message.

Felde: Garcetti was in Iowa this week, walking precincts for his presidential candidate of choice, Barack Obama. Garcetti says the situation in Kenya put his snowy experience in Iowa in perspective.

Garcetti: Democracy is a difficult enough exercise on its own. Finding people who don't really want to talk to you, people who hang up the phone on you, shut the door in your face. People who maybe are nice, but say they don't have time to go vote.

To overlay on top of that, possible corruption, vote rigging, violence, people being burned and shot, it is incredibly sobering because it's never an easy undertaking for anybody, or any campaign. But to do it in that sort of backdrop puts to me in stark relief what people around the world are trying to do to exercise their most basic of human expression, their most basic of rights.

Father Bob Dowd: Unfortunately, ethnic identity has played a large role in Kenyan politics. Politicians have all too often played the ethnic card.

Felde: Father Bob Dowd teaches African politics at Notre Dame. He spent his seminary years at a Catholic parish in the same poor neighborhood in Nairobi where Charles Atula was elected.

Dowd: In Kenya, as in many other sub-Saharan African countries, there's been a dramatic rural to urban migration. And, so people have gone from living among people of their own tribe, into the cities, looking for work, looking for a better life, in a very competitive environment.

Felde: Dowd says unemployment in Kenyan cities is as high as 50%. Most of those without jobs are frustrated and angry young men. Charles Atula blames much of the current violence on what he describes as young hooligans. He's doubly frustrated because he wants to start on fulfilling the promises he made to improve his neighborhood. He wants to reduce the number of students in each classroom.

Atula: Right now there are over 80 to a hundred. That, a teacher cannot actually manage to teach.

Felde: Atula wants no more than 45 students per classroom. He wants to improve health care by expanding the local medical dispensary. He wants to plant trees on dusty streets and transform his neighborhood's enormous two-story dump.

Atula: It should be a recycling center.

Felde: But all that must wait until the violence subsides. L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti says there's a lesson for all of us in the crisis in Kenya: just how important it is to participate in the democratic process.

Garcetti: If you can walk to more doors, more huts, more villages, if you can just do the basic organizing that we're seeing here in Iowa, it makes it more difficult for the government to steal an election. Because the more people that participate, the more feel robbed. When it's only a few people that participate, it's much easier, and the cynicism spreads and grows.

Felde: Charles Atula believes in Garcetti's mantra of face to face human contact. Even without being sworn in, he's assumed the role of a local leader.

Atula: I've been going round, talking to people, telling them, see, we should remain as friends as we are, good neighbors as we were before. If we start killing each other on tribal basis, where else will we live?