There is a lot to hope for and so much to fear in coming polls

Azimio la Umoja presidential candidate Raila Odinga addressing supporters in Iten, Elgeyo Marakwet County on July 21, 2022. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

After so many rounds of campaign rallies characterised by the usual bombast - the stuff of exaggerated promise and lies, it all comes down to the wire next Tuesday.

Forget for a moment the resultant Kenya Kwanza/Azimio la Umoja dichotomy; about who will win and who will lose. This election, like the ones, before offers us promise and peril. The promise that comes from a fresh start and the power of self-renewal. Peril that we could end up none the better.

After the exigencies of the last four-and-a-half years and the experimentation with consensus politics (aka handshake), we are bound to ask; Can democracy stretch without breaking? Will it snap back to its default form? Should we prepare for another handshake? What are the learnings from the handshake era?

It is important to note that the hollowing out of democracy doesn’t take place overnight - it takes time. This is billed as a high stakes election; what is at stake and for who? Certainly, unlike many, there is a deliberate attempt from the leading contenders to make this a people-centred election.

The point is; democracy thrives when everyone feels that they have a stake in it. The absence of that leads contestants to resort to undemocratic means of expression including a handshake.

And so, do most Kenyans (in 2022) feel that the experiment with democracy is working for them?

Elections stimulate change by weeding out those who can’t do the job and putting in those who can. Will that change this year?

Did the handshake eliminate the Achilles' heel in our democracy? What Charles Hornsby calls a “resource competition (an election tax) that forces politicians (and the electorate) into an abusive behaviour as the price for survival and which converts the competition for limited resources into an ethnic struggle.”

There are few flashes of hope though. The fact that the race finally shaped itself into a two-horse race with each having a 50-50 chance of winning is an indication of progress. Two large formations then checkmate each other especially on issues that matter to the people.

But then there exist 'hygiene issues' that need to be addressed if the gains are to be sustained and built into something better and rewarding.

When power, money and politics are locked in an embrace, democracy and ultimately, the people suffer. Our political parties have been hijacked by politicians and wheeler-dealers keen to sit at the centre of power equation because the State remains a coiled mass of interests, according to Hornsby.

In order for us to witness the power of the people over the politicians, the parts of the equation ought to change. It starts with a political campaign that is largely not hinged on identity politics. Identity politics thrive on propaganda and partisanship and often leads to polarisation from the fear and dislike of those who don’t think and look like us.

The two main formations attempted to address this by “talking ideology” and designing manifestos that projected them as attuned to the needs on the ground and sprinkling it with niceties to excite and get endorsement from Mama Mboga and the boda boda riders, mainly those at the bottom of the pyramid. Yet the ogre of identity politics loomed large.

In truth, a lot of what needs to be fixed to get Kenya to a better place doesn’t get done because we lack great plans and examples.

Rather than strengthen our democracy and thereby improve the government’s ability to get things done, many still obsess with the same old tried-and-tested formula, the unhelpful notion that to be in government equates with someone’s “turn-to-eat”.

So, what to do?

That can only be answered by asking another question; What ails our democracy? Why are more people less inclined to participate in the electoral process, and even when they do, they do it for the tribe and for the tribal king sitting atop a dysfunctional democratic enterprise?

In other words, the decision by a proletariat that has fallen under the spell of the political class doesn’t cause enlightened politics. This is counterproductive because it gives the political class a pretence to exert a stranglehold on the political and economic ecosystem. And because of that, incumbency (in its many forms) gets rewarded over and over.

Ultimately, when all looks bleak or when elections are bound to produce no surprise, the solution rests in safeguarding freedom and democracy and most importantly, the rule of law.

Mr Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group