Let all contenders explain their plans and stop populism


Residents attend the BBI rally at Garissa primary on February 23, 2020.

Currently, there is a concerted effort by politicians to institutionalise economic populism ahead of the 2022 elections. Several have begun campaigning on problems defined by them rather than “the people”. As the election approaches, another swarm will emerge, telling us what matters to them and how their plan would fix all of our problems.

Presidential candidates are a good example. I’ve been following them on both sides of the aisle, and I’ve noticed some disturbing populist trends. The most obvious example is the way they frame issues. They base their campaigns on platitudes and broad policy recommendations rather than details.

Deputy President William Ruto uses buzzwords like “bottom-up approach” and “Hustler Nation” to appeal to low-information voters, while also referencing potential political bargains and a desire not to show his hands to explain why he isn’t discussing policy specifics.

His team claims the wealthy are influencing the system to the disadvantage of ordinary Kenyans.  They claim that an elite cabal manipulates elections, opposes “people-based” socio-economic welfare programmes and rewrites rules in their favour. They promise constituencies an extra Sh100 million to help hustlers, but don’t specify where the money will come from.

Raila Odinga, a former opponent of President Uhuru Kenyatta who has since become a friend, has focused much of his campaign on nice-sounding platitudes as well. Odinga and his acolytes claim that the “powerful corrupt” who steal public funds are the root of Kenya’s economic woes.

When he isn’t tweeting about “village economies” at 9am, Odinga spends his time meeting Kenyans at rallies or receiving political pilgrims at his Capitol Hill office, pushing the idea that the beleaguered BBI project is the cure to Kenya’s economic woes.

Listening to (or reading) their rhetoric, it’s clear that the two don’t say much about how they plan to achieve these objectives. They’re just filling time with poll-tested buzz-phrases while allowing supporters to fill in the policy gaps with their own assumptions.

And even when they propose concrete policies, both have refused to elaborate on important specifics. That isn’t to imply other contenders have done well. Indeed, they have no idea where they are or where they are going.

-The writer is a Global Fellow at MWI

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