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Fasten your seat belts, the election year is here

By Ken Opalo | Updated Sat, January 7th 2017 at 00:00 GMT +3

It is hard to believe that we are yet again in an election year. This is partially because the last four years have felt like one unending campaign period. What with the incessant campaign rallies and machinations to create the most formidable political alliances yet to grace our lands. What is odd is that in the midst of all of this we all seem to have lost the plot on what it is exactly our elections are supposed to do.

You see, in 2013 we actualised one of the key bits of the 2010 Constitution – the county system of government. And this year, we are going to get the first electoral report card on how this system has worked. By providing an electoral connection closer to the people than ever before, county elections ought to be more important than the ethnic census that is the presidential election. Or so one would have hoped.

From the look of things, it appears like the ethnic politics at the national level will over-shadow mashinani (grassroots) politics. It is also likely that because of this, many of our incompetent governors will get reelected simply because they are allied with the right forces at the national level. Which is a shame, and a reflection of the failure of the political market.

Moving forward, we must think critically about how to restructure our politics – including decoupling county politics from national politics. One way of doing this would be to hold county elections in off-cycle years and stagger them in a manner that would grant the country regular popular updates on the performance of county and national governments.

Why did drafters of the Constitution not think of this? One reason could be they were mostly a group of lawyers interested in providing solutions to horrors that followed the 2007 election. They may also have been concerned about the potential of election fatigue and costs. Having staggered elections would probably mean that a set of counties would go to the polls every couple of years.

My view is that the concern about election fatigue and costs are misguided. Logic dictates that the more commonplace elections are the more likely we are to demystify these affairs. Furthermore, what better way to rein in costs than through repeated practice?

Because most of our attention will be trained on the national elections, it is worth mentioning a few pertinent points. First, this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections are going to be a lot more competitive than most people thought only a few months ago. The Jubilee administration has taken some hits over the last few months – over grant theft of public resources, unfulfilled development promises, and mishandling of the doctors’ strike.

 In addition, corralling everyone into the Jubilee Party was a terrible idea. A lot of governors and incumbent MPs who do not get the party’s nomination will jump ship. And if forced to vote for the party leaders’ choices most voters in Jubilee strongholds will probably choose to stay at home, thereby depressing turnout.

That said, the Jubilee administration needs the party to keep its house together. It is the one credible commitment device that gives Deputy President William Ruto ease of mind. By tying elites together, the party provides a modicum of guarantee that its members will support Ruto come 2022. It is my hope that Ruto is up to date on his history of Kenyan political parties.

The Opposition also has its problems and opportunities. For one, their best chance of winning the election is if they manage to field a single candidate, and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga is not on the ticket. Fielding multiple strong candidates and forcing a run-off is the second-best option. But knowing Kenyan politicians, it is likely that in the latter scenario those who do not make it to the run off would be bought off by Jubilee. So there is that.

It is certainly going to be an interesting political year. And my hope is that mwananchi gets to benefit in terms of concrete policy proposals; and not just vacuous claims about ethnic arithmetic.


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