Does the African middle class defend democracy? Evidence from Kenya

Nic Cheeseman


This paper uses the case of Kenya to investigate the attitudes and behaviours of the middle class. It uses Afrobarometer survey data to explore whether there is anything distinctive about the political attitudes of the Kenyan middle class.

The paper measures class in four ways: education, employment status, poverty, and wealth (assets). It then tests whether these variables have a statistically significant impact on how people vote and how supportive they are of democracy.

Key findings:

  • There is some evidence that the middle class has played a significant role in the uneven process of democratization. The leadership of civil-society groups such as the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), which led the opposition to the one-party state, featured lawyers, religious leaders, and businessmen.
  • Class interests at times overrides ethnic concerns, but the consequences for democracy are rarely positive.
  • Analysis of the Afrobarometer survey data suggests that while ethnicity remains dominant, class also plays a significant role in determining partisan identity. As expected, support for the party of the president breaks down along ethnic lines, and ethnicity is consistently more substantively important than even the most influential specification of class.
  • Kikuyus were significantly more likely to support President Kibaki, while the Luo, Luhya, Kamba, and Kalenjin were all significantly more likely to support the opposition. Somalis are the only group that appears to be more divided in its voting patterns – being a Somali is only a weak predictor of support for Kibaki Party of National Unity.
  • The impact of class on support for the party of the president is complex, but what appears to matter is wealth and education. Wealth and education proved to be significant predictors of support for the president’s party. Living in poverty and having a job however do not impact support for the ruling party.
  • The Afrobarometer data reveals that not only does class play a significant role in determining support for democracy in Kenya, in this respect it is considerably more important than ethnicity. Apart from among Somali voters, who are significantly more likely to favour democratic rule, ethnicity has little effect on respondents’ political beliefs.
  • Some of the dimensions of class that scholars have argued play a key role in the promotion of democratic consolidation were not found to be significant in the case of Kenya. This demonstrates how important it is to break down the concept of “class” into its constituent parts.
  • Employment status, wealth, and education were significant predictors of support for democracy. Living in poverty however does not have an impact on support for democracy.


Cheeseman, N. (2014). Does the African middle class defend democracy? Evidence from Kenya. Working Paper No. 150, Afrobarometer.