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Why do people vote for Cruel Leaders?

An Installation at the Berlin Nineties Museum commemorating victims killed 
while trying to escape across the Berlin Wall. Despite it's cruelty, the Nazi regime rose to power and remained popular promising solutions to the 
numerous problems Germans faced in the 1920s and 1930s.

Why do Kenyans, or any other electorate for that matter, vote for cruel politicians or so-called leaders?
The common argument is that the voters are ignorant, or were “misled” or had “no option”. But this is not true.

People know who and what they are voting for. People intentionally vote for cruel politicians especially when the voters form part of a majority - clan, tribe, race, nation, class or other majority.

It is not that they do not know the politicians are cruel. They simply assume that the cruelty will be experienced by others - the minority - and will never be experienced by them. They deal with the conscience by arguing that those experiencing cruelty must have done something wrong to deserve it.

This comes out clearly in Dauti Kahura’s writing in The Elephant, a topical East African blog. In one of his pieces, Kahura notes that the voters can not believe that their businesses are suffering as a result of who they voted for. The unwritten rule is that they voted for someone from their tribe and thus their businesses shouldn’t be on the receiving end of punitive government policies.

Such policies are a preserve of the minorities - those who have no one in government to speak for them.

And this is why the majority voters can’t believe that they are the victims of government policy. Demolished houses, import bans and high import taxes were supposed to affect those who supposedly “didn't vote for the government.” After voting for those in power, they can't understand why their businesses are suffering from lack of supplies and their mansions are demolished in the middle of the night. Isn’t the person they voted for no longer thinking about them?
A modern-day street in Berlin depicting where the Berlin Wall cut across


But there’s a small problem. When you ignore injustices against others, the minority - the problem is that those injustices will soon be redirected towards the many.

Politicians equally get brazen - the fact that they keep getting elected irrespective of what they do makes them confident that they can get away with anything. This is how dictatorships last between 20 to 30 years. The harm they wreck only begins to affect most of the regime’s supporters later. In the early years of the regime’s rule, harm is mostly directed to the minorities and opponents, and most supporters feel that only those who have broken the law have a thing to fear.

Considering themselves non law-breakers, they keep supporting cruel politicians, only to realise that injustice has no boundaries. It eventually comes for everyone, and then, it is too late and needs more effort to get rid of.

There’s also the fact that human beings are secretly cruel. We only hate injustice as long as it affects us. If it affects people who don’t look like us, maybe they have done something wrong. 

It has been said that one of the roles of a politician is to commit cruel acts on behalf of their voters - to do the kind of things that a voter agrees are not moral, but which they nevertheless support. For instance, wars tend to have popular public support yet people would agree that killing especially innocent people is not moral. Yet, going to war has often been used as a strategy to win elections.

The only thing that stops people from backing cruel politicians is personally experiencing the cruelty of such politicians. Warnings never work. People see the good side of bad politicians and the bad side of good ones, so bad ones dominate until most people realise cruelty is not the answer.

It does not further help that cruel politicians tend to be the populist type that promise instant answers to complicated problems, especially during difficult times.

Voters and the citizenry somehow believe in the absurd promises and things said by populists. They have faith in the miracles that populists promise to deliver, despite them being impractical or almost impossible and more often, cruel to sections of the population. 

Sometimes, many times, people and entire communities are thrown under the bus as populists promise instant solutions to complex problems. People are more keen on the instant solutions and less so on who is thrown under the bus - that’s how the cruelty starts and keeps going.

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