Lack of internal democracy, mobilising political support along tribal and regional lines, and using violence to intimidate rivals or force certain opinions are some features of some of the political parties Kenya today. They are also used as vehicles of transporting leaders from one election to another with very little activity between the elections.
These features are a mirror image of the parties in the late colonial period when the colonial administration encouraged naïve politicians to form ethnic associations in the name of political parties. They illustrate that our political parties have changed little in the five years after the passing of a progressive constitution in 2010, and 50 years after independence.
From 1963 on, the parties began to articulate the communal and personal interests of their respective leaders. Personal interests were conflated with communal or ethnic interests. How parties mobilised political support along ethnic lines widened social and political schisms.
Parties and Constitution
The Constitution of Kenya 2010 sought to correct this by establishing a framework to organise the operations of political parties and transform them into effective agents of democracy, national development, and national cohesion.
First, the constitution requires the parties to have a national character. This requires parties to draw members from across the country. The policies of the party must also espouse a national agenda. They are required to take the initiative to establish a strong foundation for promoting national cohesion and unity. The constitution therefore had the vision of transforming the political parties into a bridge for national integration and cohesion.
Secondly, the constitution requires the political parties to have democratically elected governing bodies. It requires them to practise internal good governance and promote internal democracy through conducting free and fair elections. They have to respect the aspirations of party members and to be accountable to them. They are required to enhance gender equity and respect people’s rights.
The code of conduct for the parties is also implied in the constitution. The parties are required to discourage violence. They are prohibited from forming or promoting militia, or intimidating anyone, whether supporters or opponents.
These requirements and the implied code show that the political parties are not just vehicles for obtaining elective posts. They are instruments for promoting the public good and national development in general.
Conduct of parties
How political parties have continued to behave and operate shows they have rapidly become instruments for polarisation. They have continued to draw membership on an ethnic basis and to widen existing divisions.
The Wiper Democratic Movement under the leadership of Mr. Kalonzo Musyoka draws its numeric strength from the Kamba people in lower Eastern. The Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) of Mr. Raila Odinga has Luo Nyanza as its bedrock of support, while Ford Kenya of Moses Wetangula is in practice a Bukusu-Luhya party.
Other parties are also vehicles for advancing ethnic interests. The National Alliance (TNA) of President Uhuru Kenyatta is a Kikuyu party even though some party leaders come from other regions. The United Republican Party of the Deputy President William Ruto is a party for articulation of Kalenjin interests. The articulation of ethnic interests means little. The elites are not accountable to their groups. They only use them for their votes and do little for them.
All the political parties have formed political alliances and coalitions. This has been done with a view to making it easy to get political power and so promote and protect the personal interests of their leaders, and the allied communities.
The Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) comprising ODM, Ford-Kenya and the Wiper party is an alliance of ethnic groups associated with the individual parties in the alliance – Kamba, Luo, and Luhya. Similarly, Jubilee Alliance represents the Kikuyu and related groups in the Mt. Kenya region, and the Kalenjin and other groups in the Rift Valley.
These two main political blocs have no presence outside the home region of their principal leaders.
The promise to promote national unity and cohesion made during the campaigns for 2013 election has remained an empty slogan with little to show on the ground. The parties formed coalitions and alliances to assist their respective leaders accede to political power as an end in itself.
The Jubilee alliance has begun the process to wind up member parties so as to form one main political party ostensibly to promote national unity. But the rhetoric accompanying the winding up of the member parties shows evidence that this is done to promote political fortunes of individuals rather than promote national cohesion.
Cord has no pretensions about winding up. It has not pronounced itself on the question of national cohesion. As the lead minority, the coalition is also in place to raise the political fortunes of the principal leaders.
There is also the third bloc, the Amani Coalition or the Amani National Congress. It is yet to build a national character. The coalition is yet to show good presence in areas outside one half of Western Kenya.
The political alliances represent the ethno-regional interests. They are not brought together by the need to raise the fortunes of Kenya as a country. Within the parties, there is very limited discussion about “Kenya”. Internal party discussions centre around “we versus them”.
Lack of internal democracy and good governance
The parties have also failed to promote a culture of internal democracy, accountability, and good governance. Although they are required to foster internal democracy through free and fair elections, the last three years have witnessed increased internal conflicts within the parties. Where parties have attempted to conduct internal elections, the results have largely lacked credibility.
This period has also witnessed conflict between the interests of party leaders and the interests and aspirations of voters. Party supporters clearly prefer to have the local leaders they can trust to articulate their interests. But the founder members or the national leadership of the party prefers individuals who are loyal to them.
All this is happening because the mechanisms by which voters can hold their party leaders accountable are not in place. The various political parties are owned by the party leaders; party members have no voice in the running of party affairs. The alliances also represent the individual interests of the founder members of the parties comprising the alliance.
Importantly, the Registrar of Political Parties remains an ornament with little interest in promoting institutionalisation of political parties. The Registrar has been missing and therefore the parties have decided to run their affairs with little regard to the provisions of the constitution. The Registrar claims to have few facilities to discharge her obligations.
The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has also shown little or no interest in addressing the problems in the political parties. The Commission is so fearful of political parties and their leaders, that it cannot take action on any party or party leader who has committed an offence.
The main factor contributing to all these challenges, however, is Kenya’s electoral system. Our system remains largely the “first-past-the-post” system in which the person with the highest number of votes is declared the winner. Although the presidential election now requires the winning candidate to have 50 per cent plus one vote, the system is largely majoritarian. This motivates individual candidates to mobilise political support from among their communities by arousing anxieties over marginalisation and fear of communal loss. They are made to believe that if their leaders lose an election, the community will be vulnerable.
Some of the challenges facing political parties can be addressed with ease if pressure is put on the IEBC and the Registrar of Political Parties to take action on errant party leaders and the parties themselves. This may not be easy because the IEBC and the Registrar appear fearful of politicians; they are less interested in building strong institutions.
*By a correspondent contributor for the Katiba Corner