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The five stages of political grief

In an episode of the television series the West Wing, a candidate on course to be the next president of the United States loses an election after an unforeseeable turn of events derails his campaign. The next day, he heads into work early to write thank you letters to his supporters. Wandering around the deserted campaign office, the empty chairs and tables finally bring home the cold hard reality that his dreams, and the adrenaline and attention that went along with them, are over.

I have met many candidates in this state over the years, at multiple levels of the political system. Some have been quietly destroyed, wondering how they can ever pay back the debts they took on during the election. Others are furious and a danger to themselves and others. The one thing that tends to unite them is their sense of loss.

In this way, processing political grief is not so different to getting over the death of a loved one. Like other kinds of grief, it often involves five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – and it can take a very long time before denial turns into acceptance, with major consequences for the future of democracy.

Stage 1: Denial 

When the election was close, denial is a natural first emotion for the defeated politician. Especially for candidates who surround themselves with “yes men” who talk up their changes, disbelief and desperation can mingle with psychological denial to create a potent and destructive cocktail.

This was the case with Donald Trump, whose, delusions of grandeur and bevvy of sycophants led him to try and overturn the result to keep himself in power “at all costs”. Not only did his actions following the 2020 presidential election encourage the attack on the U.S. capitol, but they also undermined the confidence of many Americans in what was, in fact, a credible process.

Unfortunately, political denial is not a stage that leaders pass through quickly, in part because candidates know that if they accept defeat their party or community may replace them with a more popular alternative next time around. For this reason, Trump and his allies continue to expound the myth that he was somehow rigged out, increasing the prospects that the 2024 presidential contest will be characterised by confusion and controversy.

Trump is not alone. In Kenya, Raila Odinga has struggled to come to terms with his defeat by William Ruto on 9 August. Having desired the presidency for so long, and having come so close in 2007 when the election was manipulated to keep him out of power, this was perhaps to be expected.

Odinga’s alliance with President Uhuru Kenyatta ahead of the 2022 polls made him the favourite and meant that “the state” would not block his way. With pre-election opinion polls giving him a large lead, and allies and supporters believing he was destined to win, defeat must have been particularly hard to swallow – especially given his advanced years and the sense that this might be his last chance to occupy the State House.

This may help to explain why, although his election petition was summarily dismissed by the Supreme Court for lack of evidence, Odinga has continued to blame anyone but himself for his loss. Indeed, if anything the long-time opposition leader’s statements appear to be getting more far-fetched. Having initially claimed he was rigged out by a small number of Venezuelans and the electoral commission, Odinga recently alleged that he was the victim of an international conspiracy led by unnamed foreign powers and multinational companies.

The saddest thing about this situation is that a figure once revered as a pro-democracy leader is now part of a misinformation campaign designed to undermine the very democratic institutions he helped to introduce.

Stage 2: Anger

As the examples of Trump and Odinga demonstrate, anger often comes hot on the heels of denial, as losing candidates look for someone to blame. This might be the electoral commission, political allies who failed to deliver, or voters themselves. Electoral scapegoating serves two purposes. First, it makes it psychologically easier for the candidate to process their failure, by providing an explanation for their defeat that preserves their pride. Second, it makes good political sense: by shifting the blame to someone else, a candidate can escape with their reputation intact – ready to fight again another day.

In some cases, anger may be legitimate, of course. More elections are being held than ever before, but more are also being manipulated. But it can also take the form of petty rage. I came across a number of defeated leaders in Malawi who attempted to take back bicycles they had given out during the campaign, and in one case a losing candidate even demanded that the roofs he had provided for voters’ houses be returned.

The image of a politician snatching bikes from unfaithful voters may be amusing, but it also reinforces the idea that politicians only deliver to those who vote for them, and so entrenches practices of clientelism and vote buying.

Stage 3: Bargaining

 The bargaining stage of grief is said to come when individuals get weary of anger and start to make “bargains”, often with a higher power, in a bid to end their pain. It might take the form of promising to be a better person or giving up bad habits if only a situation is reversed. This represents an attempt to regain control of what feels like a helpless situation.

I have known politicians make such bargains like this, both with themselves and with God. But many also seek to resolve their grief through a different kind of negotiation, seeking to do a deal with the winning party in order to plot a pathway to power. This was the way that Odinga coped with defeat in the 2017 presidential elections, agreeing to the “handshake” with President Kenyatta in March 2018 that brought him into government and saw him emerge as Kenyatta’s preferred candidate for 2022.

This kind of grief bargaining has a track record of ending periods of election controversy and violence but can also harm democratic consolidation. In many countries, power-sharing governments – in which there is effectively no opposition – have undermined accountability and facilitated corruption.

Stages 4 and 5: Depression and Acceptance

In politics, as in other forms of grief, the failure to strike a viable bargain can be the trigger for depression. I have written before about the economic and psychological challenges that politicians face, in response to the tragic suicide of Clement Chiwaya, the respected former Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, who shot himself dead in front of the clerk of parliament.

That case was exceptional, but politics often involves deep sadness and real hardship. This was beautifully illustrated during the last Kenyan elections when the son of former MP Kipkalya Kones shared a powerful piece called “THINK TWICE before JOINING POLITICS”, which included the words:

  • I watched my dad lose 3 elections. It wasn’t funny. He spent hours outside in the yard reading his Bible. I guess he really wanted to find out if God was still with him.
  • We suffered too …
  • Our house was sold because of campaigns, we went back to paying rent after forgetting landlords … My mum aged literally …
  • All the guys who used to throng our house telling him he was the King disappeared overnight …
  • Some losers were arrogant and deserve it but ultimately you wouldn’t wish this pain on anyone. Not even your enemy. …
  • As we celebrate the winners … let’s also remember the losers …
  • Fight the depression, pick yourself up and walk again.
  • Given the anger and depression, many suffer, we should do more to celebrate those who find a quick path to acceptance.

One of the striking things about television coverage of legislative and county-level results in Kenya this year was how many losing candidates graciously accepted defeat. When Polycarp Igathe of Jubilee was defeated by Johnson Sakaja of the United Democratic Alliance for the key position of Governor of Nairobi he did not claim to be hard done by, and instead said:

“I accept the decision of the people of Nairobi and thank all our supporters. The Governor of Nairobi is His Excellency Johnson Sakaja. Congratulations!”

The trend was so notable that media houses even began to speculate that it could become one of the defining features of the elections until Odinga rejected the presidential results. Moving forwards, we should do more to spotlight those whose commitment to democratic principles outweighs their denial, anger and depression.

Contesting defeat when you have been unfairly rigged out is one to strengthen democracy, but so is accepting defeat when the polls simply didn’t go your way.

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