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How party hopping law will weaken Parliament

COMMENTARY
By Ken Opalo | September 3rd 2016

How should we deal with politicians who switch parties at will? What implication does this have for governance standards in Kenya? And what does it mean for the development of institutions like Parliament and our political parties? These are questions that we must answer before we legislate on the matter of party hopping. And as we do so, we must realise that not all good things go together. We may want strong parties – that discipline their members and ensure that politicians do not switch parties like they change clothes. But too much party discipline and control over politicians is also a bad thing. We want parties to be avenues for vigorous policy debates. We want elected officials in Parliament and county assemblies who are free to represent Wananchi, and not their party leaders. At times this may mean allowing the same politicians to switch parties.

Before proceeding further, we should begin by asking the question: Who benefits from the curtailment of party hopping? The simple answer here is: our self-styled ethnic chiefs cum party leaders. And who are the losers: Voters and state institutions are the obvious losers. When our leading parties have the power to limit the choices available to voters at the ballot, we are the ones who lose. Our representative institutions also lose out on independent talent. We don’t want a Parliament and county assemblies dominated by individuals who parrot party lines at the expense of the real needs of wananchi that they purport to represent. Giving parties the power to regulate entry into specific races will achieve precisely this outcome. The fear of not being nominated in the next election will limit the independence of elected officials in Parliament and the county assemblies. The lack of independence among these legislators will necessarily stunt the organisational development of these institutions.

This is not to say that party hopping is a good thing. It is not. But the way to deal with it should be through the adoption of norms against it, not through legislation. Nobody wants to be associated with turncoats or individuals without principles. Politicians who switch parties willy-nilly betray precisely these character traits. They are empty vessels for hire. For a long time our political culture tolerated these individuals, on account of our fixation on ethnic representation rather than some sense of ideological or policy preferences. It has always been OK for our preferred ethnic chief to switch parties as long as they promise to give us greater access to state resources at their next stop.

However, this is changing. The Constitution, which mandates that winning presidential candidates must garner 50 per cent plus one, is partly responsible for this. Parties at the national level have strong incentives to form large blocs and alliances. This will force both politicians and wananchi to view politics as a battle between two clearly defined choices. And as a corollary, party hoppers will be labeled as having clearly crossed from one side to the other. The recent example of defections among western Kenya MPs is illustrative. Despite all manner of verbal jujitsu, it is clear in voters’ minds that the said MPs have left CORD for a closer relationship with Jubilee (or a faction of Jubilee). And for this reason these MPs seem to have incurred a non-trivial electoral penalty. They will most certainly struggle to retain their seats next August.

What this example tells us is that we should not legislate against party hopping, despite our moral compunction against the act. The unintended consequences of doing so – as I argue above – may out way the benefits. Instead, we should invest in changing our political culture and let voters be the ones to punish unprincipled politicians. In all instances the real bosses of our elected officials should always be voters, and not self-appointed ethnic chiefs masquerading as party leaders.           

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