Referendum talk likely to shape 2022 politics

President Uhuru Kenyatta and NASA leader Raila Odinga at a golf championship in Nairobi last month following their unity talks. (File, Standard)
Calls for constitutional changes to create extra top leadership positions have gained momentum, with the Jubilee Party appearing to be reading from different scripts.

Talk of a referendum to amend the law and create positions of Prime Minister and deputies has often attracted opposition largely from the Jubilee leaders. But now, silent undertones are pointing to a likely clamour for changes to the 2010 constitution ahead of the next elections.

Deputy President William Ruto has castigated the voices calling for a referendum, especially from the National Super Alliance (NASA), whose leaders have been agitating for changes to the law to accommodate their leader Raila Odinga in government.

But a long serving MP from the region, who declined to be named for fear of being seen to appear as fronting the debate too early, warned the DP to tread carefully on this matter.

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“We will strongly oppose anyone who will be against the referendum and even Ruto has to be careful how he addresses this matter,” said the MP.

The loudest voices for a change of law to create extra top leadership seats have come from the opposition NASA, whose leaders argue that following the “handshake” between Raila and President Uhuru Kenyatta, a referendum is necessary to accommodate their leaders in government.

These calls have been opposed by leaders within Jubilee on grounds that such a political activity could rob the administration time to implement its development agenda, and possibly slow down Uhuru’s “Big Four” agenda.

But the Jubilee house appears divided on the clamour. Though some are completely rubbishing the calls, opposing any changes to the law, others argue that this is a debate that could be entertained, but only towards 2022 to allow the government time deliver.

Political interests

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Yesterday, Majority Leader in the National Assembly Aden Duale shrugged off talk of a referendum, saying Jubilee wants to grant the President time to deliver on the development agenda.  “We will not entertain any clamour for the changes to the Constitution at whatever time. Jubilee is not ready to take the country back to a referendum or election mood,” he said.

The Garissa Township MP added: “We cannot be changing the Constitution at the whims of political interests to satisfy a few politicians. We want the President to concentrate on the development agenda, and especially in delivery of his Big Four agenda”.

His Senate counterpart Kipchumba Murkomen was mild in his opposition to the calls, but like Duale, said the focus should be on development. The Elgeyo Marakwet Senator however left room for possible debate on the matter, arguing that it should not distract Jubilee leaders from its development work plan. “When we have delivered on the Big Four agenda, then maybe we can have a look at this (constitutional changes). We believe even within Jubilee that the Constitution needs to be amended in many areas, but this is not the time for it,” he said.

“We want to spend more time fixing the economy and helping the President consolidate his legacy, then we can possibly revisit the issue later,” said Murkomen.

Undertones from the Central Kenya political class intimate that they could be pushing for a referendum, although at a date closer to the 2022 polls.

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Leaders from the region are seen to have resigned to the fact that they will not be presenting a formidable presidential candidate in the next polls, and are still unlikely to have one of their own picked as a running mate by Ruto, who appears to be, so far, their preferred candidate to succeed Uhuru.

Fears that the vote-rich region may not have a strong say in the next administration have led many into silently lobbying for constitutional changes to create the position of Prime Minister or Chief Minister, which the region hopes to claim.

Senior positions

“I have heard of these undertones and I admit that the rationale may be good, only that I feel it is not the best time to champion the referendum course,” said Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata.

“Central Kenya has the largest voting bloc for Jubilee. Missing out on the two plum positions would mean that the realistic way to satisfy the region’s interest is to grant it a senior position established under the Constitution,” said the MP who did not wish to be named.

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Homa Bay Town MP Peter Kaluma argues that it is inevitable to have a referendum, saying there was a general feeling within NASA that Kenya needs to change the structure of government and move from presidential to parliamentary system.

“The presidential system we have is very narrow at the top and for a country that is multi-ethnic and diverse as Kenya, that narrow leadership positions anchors exclusivity,” he argues, proposing the creation of the position of PM.

Going parliamentary would ensure the Prime Minister is in Parliament to respond to queries from MPs, and ensure accountability in government, Kaluma said.

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