The violent clashes, political turmoil and mayhem that have gripped Kenya over the past few weeks, following the seriously flawed presidential elections on December 27, 2007, which were marred by egregious irregularities, dispel any Western-backed notions regarding the country as a model democracy to be replicated elsewhere on the continent.

Once the envy of its poverty-stricken neighbors, many of whom are plagued by serious political instability, Kenya has long been regarded as a bastion of peace, hope and progress in a region that borders the Horn of Africa, often referred to as Africa's basket case.

The crisis in East Africa's powerhouse has sent shock waves throughout the region and beyond. With more than 800 deaths, 250 000 people displaced and another half-a-million in need of humanitarian assistance, Kenya is living through some of its worst recorded political violence since its independence from Great Britain in 1963.

Far from being regarded as the result of election fraud and an issue of tribal grievances, the current violence can best be understood as the gradual, perpetual frustration of Kenyans with the social ills afflicting their nation.

These include social marginalization of ethnic groups, deep-seated corruption, income disparity along ethnic and regional lines, and a grotesque appetite for power by politicians but, more deeply, the failure of its political system.

The opposition, which constitutes an organized banding together of member of the Luos, Luhya and Kalenjin tribes, representing roughly 40 percent of the country's population and, for a large part, led by opposition leader, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), have long since insisted that they had been discriminated against by the traditionally dominant Kikuyu ethnic group, led by incumbent President Mwai Kibaki for decades, and going back as far as the early post-independence days.

Although this conflict does run along ethnic lines, it is too simplistic to blame historical ethnic grievances for the country's current political turmoil.

Rather, its seriously flawed and weak parliament, as well as the structure of its political system, has been a recipe for disaster for a long time coming.

This has produced a situation, similar to those in other African states with weak legislatures, where the presidential elections are regarded as an opportunity for an incumbent president, or the opposition, to utilize every avenue and all available resources to, not only contest the presidency but, more importantly, to win the presidency at all costs, thus ensuring accessibility to the state's coffers and power structure.

Given government's apparent reluctance to organize and conduct free and fair elections, its corrupt and abusive security and safety apparatus, its incompetent electoral commission and its continued monopoly over power and wealth, coupled with a weak legislature, have left the opposition all the more willing to resort to an anarchic display of public disorder and violence.

Looking at events over the past weeks, it is clear that Odinga and his supporters are equally to blame for the breakdown of the state's security structures, by undermining the legitimacy of the rule of law and due process, while maximizing the chaos amongst the frustrated peasantry, eager for a piece of the country's wealth.

Given the weakness of the country's legislature and the obvious pitfalls that are commonly associated with the centralization of power in the presidency, it is highly unlikely that the opposition will call off violent protests while government refuses to address the root of the crisis.

It is difficult to conceive a change in government policy in restructuring and strengthening the country's legislature without Western-backed pressure for reform, abandoning, even momentarily, their long-standing backing of the regime.

Often characterized in Western media as a reliable partner in America's war against terror, a supporter of free-market economic policies, presiding over surging economic growth in recent years, and as a politician who first ran in 2002 on a political platform to curb corruption and open up Kenya's political system to greater democracy, President Kibaki has had the luxury of securing Western backing for his regime, despite his apparent dismal track record in both fields.

If the international community is genuinely interested in assisting Kenyans to diffuse much of the violence ripping the country apart, it would need to substantially invest in bolstering Kenya's capacity by strengthening its formal institutions and, more in particular, the national legislature.

It is too early to indicate whether the new face to face meetings between President Kibaki and Opposition leader Odinga would produce the kind of answers that Kenya desperately needs to diffuse the crisis.

If mediation talks do succeed in quelling the violence temporarily, and if both sides were to agree on a more comprehensive overhaul of the political system and electoral process, the current crisis will, undoubtedly, offer the country an opportunity to prepare the ground for a more comprehensive social rehabilitation process.

On the other hand, failure will propel the country into a steep decline towards utter chaos and the potential risk of ethnic cleansing - something that the international community would want to avoid at all costs, given the recent memories of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in recent years.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.