Party mergers create a soft landing for underperformers

Deputy President William Ruto, Musalia Mudavadi (ANC) and Ford Kenya's Moses Wetangula during a past rally in Mbale, Vihiga County. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

So what does Musalia Mudavadi’s jumping into bed with his former opponents at UDA portend for our democracy?

Former PM Raila Odinga had his followers switch from loathing President Uhuru Kenyatta after the March 2018 handshake. So what? President Uhuru Kenyatta and DP William Ruto came together “to unite the country” in 2012. They conjured up an electoral victory from their much publicised merger in Nakuru. Now they won’t see eye to eye. So what?

Maybe Kenya would be a world champion on account of these pre-election and post-election pacts. On the surface, mergers are the panacea for all our problems; disunity, bad leadership, post-election strife, poverty, unemployment.

For 30 years at every election cycle, there have emerged groups fronting a new shade of merger after another. Others have been more of acquisitions than mergers.

Yet this circus of forming, and signing and then storming out of political mergers masks a bigger problem with our democracy; that when the political architecture is propped up by backroom deals and patronage and the clubbing of big boys, democracy fails to function as it should.

For in those 30 plus years, we haven’t seen the power of the people over the politicians. Instead, we have repeatedly witnessed the power of the politicians over the people. Because of mergers incumbency gets rewarded over and over.

Research has demonstrated the association between democracy and higher, sustainable growth. The fear of being voted out makes the leaders to invest in good roads, better schools and equipped hospitals.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga during a past infrastructure project. Their parties, Jubilee and ODM have laid plans for a coalition. [Courtesy]

And because elections present the people with reward and sanction options; to penalise those who cannot get the job done and reward those who get the job done, democracy then becomes a means to an end.

Not here. There is plenty of evidence on what is good about democracy and plenty more to persuade us that anything else is a worse alternative. But our democracy has a quaint taste.

Parties are at the centre of a thriving democracy. Societies that have fostered strong, transparent parties continue to profit from democracy. Strong parties ensure the people’s right to demand the best from their governments.

The lack of strong parties could explain in one way why Kenya fares worse than it should if you consider the success of its peers like South Korea and Singapore in under 40 years.

Investing in mergers overlooks the need for strong, focused and visionary leaders.

But why mergers? Mergers create a soft landing for the underperformers. Because there is safety in numbers, mergers then become a place to hide if you have not been doing very well.

For in truth, mergers are just but a ruse for mobilising votes so as to capture and retain power. And since most of our parties are no more than tribal conglomerations advancing narrow agenda for a few privileged upper-class Kenyans, it becomes fashionable to craft mergers every five years.

And no matter how many mergers we make, the prediction is that we will soon end up where we started; new beginnings that ushered in false dawns.

Societies that have fostered strong, transparent parties continue to profit from democracy. [File, Standard]

There are two constants that we must get accustomed to; Kenya is punching below its weight. Two; politicians have little or no understanding of, or interest in the lives and concerns of citizens. The country expects too much from them actually.

It need not be like this. Though the 2010 Constitution was hailed as taking away power from the politicians to the people, we have seen how (through schemes such as BBI and the numerous legislations including the Security Laws of 2015) the political class would like to pull power to their side especially through mergers.

Imagining a new Kenya will be possible when the people overthrow the political class. So though elections are a necessary, if not the only proven ingredient for change, we need strong institutions. We need independent and speedy courts; a media that barks and bites; a Judiciary that protects the rights of citizens. It is a safe bet and an antidote in an age when the Executive and Legislature are locked in an ungainly embrace.

Most importantly, we need enlightened masses who can decipher the games being played in the political arena.

Mr Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group