Let's de-link party leadership from Executive, Parliament

President William Ruto exits UDA headquarters after chairing the party's National Steering Committee meeting in April 2024. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

While the Constitution of Kenya provides for independent candidates for all positions in general elections, the role of political parties beyond sponsoring candidates for elections is critical. Political parties are the structures through which parliamentary work is ordered and organised. Parliamentary business and decision-making, including committee work, are managed through political party representation.

There are a few issues in Parliament that are bipartisan but the majority of decisions are made through partisan political lines. This is why you have leaders and deputies of majority and minority and several whips from both sides. Kenyan Parliament – the National Assembly and the Senate – comprises two main coalitions with affiliate political parties and few independent representatives, who appear to gravitate towards either coalition as they choose depending on the matter at hand and their interests.

The institution of independent candidates in Kenya is nascent and independents don’t seem to represent their constituencies directly on political issues because they support whichever side they choose in Parliament without necessarily going back to their constituents to ask for their opinions. Coalition democracy is relatively new and most are cobbled together to win an election and as the basis for sharing the spoils of electoral victory.

These coalitions come together as regional or ethnic blocs and rely on their numbers (of voters) to win and then share positions. The winner takes it all. Therefore, depending on the presidential candidate and his/her voting blocs, the running mate will be chosen from the next largest voting bloc, although these days, there is also the matter of “buying” these positions through massive contributions to the presidential campaigns. This is why it becomes necessary to “create” additional Cabinet positions (outside the Constitution) to reward those voting blocs and large campaign finance contributors.

The positions of speakers of the Senate and National Assembly are also used as “rewards” for supporting the winning coalition. This is a practice that has existed since the re-introduction of multiparty politics, giving rise to ethnic/regional voting blocs.

There are no extremely divergent political philosophies between political parties. The political manifestoes are similar, the difference being in their languages, styles, and presentations. Political party democracy has not fully matured.

In my research, I sought to find out why MPs appear helpless in the face of controversial decisions they support yet they know are unpopular with their constituents. I found that the majority of MPs lack operational independence or are in mortal fear of their party/coalition leaders, who are not even in Parliament! Some party/coalition leaders monitor every move their MPs make and if they display any form of independence in decision-making or vote or speak against the party/coalition position, they will receive a warning call from the party/coalition leader personally.

MPs are kept on a very short leash. Some say that, while they know that their constituents do not always agree with their voting patterns, they are more afraid of their party/coalition leader than the wrath of their voters.

This is why our democracy and good governance in Parliament are a mirage. As long as the party/coalition leaders are calling the shots and focusing on their short-term political interests, we may not have political party democracy any time soon. It is time we introduced 360-degree accountability structures in political parties and Parliament. In addition, we need to completely de-link party leadership from the Executive, and Parliament. This means after winning/losing an election, the party/coalition leaders organise their party/coalition delegates and immediately elect party/coalition leaders in Parliament to whom they relinquish all their leadership roles and authority and focus on governance and providing checks and balances outside Parliament.

Democracy and good governance will be nurtured and operational independence enhanced to make parliamentary work more efficient, effective, and accountable. It will also reduce corruption and squabbles between political parties/coalitions about who was bought by whom as external influences, pressure and corruption will be minimised.

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