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How to fix our limping parties, democracy

By Mohamed Guleid | February 11th 2021

After persistent demands for the amendment of the Constitution in 1991  - with many paying a heavy price in detention without trials, torture and harassment - the ruling party Kanu eventually caved in and allowed for competitive politics through the repeal of Section 2A.

I vividly remember the clamour of the late 1980s for multiparty democracy. I was a college student then and like many youth of my time, we were full of idealism. ‘Canaan’ was real and we felt we could touch it.

The proponents of political pluralism, such as Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia, Martin Shikuku, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and many other luminaries of the Second Liberation, including the Young Turks like Paul Muite and Justice Mohamed Ibrahim, sold it as the salvation that would fix the country’s problems. And they had a vision; many parties competing on ideology would offer the people a better alternative and enrich our governance.

Fast forward 30 years later, Kenya has more than 70 registered political parties, even though 90 per cent of them don’t have a single elected representative. Alas, only a handful of parties fit the bill. And the price many paid to get us here is literally wasting away.

After the 2017 elections, the ruling Jubilee Party had a comfortable majority, controlling both houses of Parliament. Then came the handshake and, voilà, Jubilee is now shaking. The incestuous relationship between Jubilee and ODM (part of the NASA coalition) is making a mockery of the democratic push of the 1980s-90s. Something has gone terribly amiss.

Picture this: a huge section of the ruling party has moved (in spirit and mind) to a new outfit, the United Democratic Alliance (UDA). The largest party is no longer large but a shell of its past, thanks to a seemingly irredeemable fallout between the party leader and his deputy. The same fate befell the Rainbow Coalition that dethroned Kanu in 2002. A behemoth was reduced to a whimper after Raila Odinga’s LDP became the Opposition in government. So what really is wrong with our political parties? Why do they stumble every few years and fall asunder?

Parties are a critical ingredient in the democratic process. Good parties promote good governance and the common good. Look at mature Western democracies - parties are bigger than the individual members. In the UK, for example, the Labour Party was bigger than Tony Blair or Gordon Brown or Jeremy Corbin; the Conservative Party was bigger than David Cameron or Theresa May. Once the parties deemed it that their continued stay in the party was untenable, they withdrew their support. That has ensured that the UK democracy is strong and can withstand any stresses. Leaders come and go, but institutions remain.

But unlike in mature democracies, Kenya’s political parties’ existence depends on the goodwill of those who own them. The genius of democracy is the balance the three arms of government establishes. Because we have not nourished all the other institutions that underpin democracy - Judiciary and the legislature - those who own these parties will rule the roost. A slight disagreement in the party then undermines how government and its institutions are run.

Functioning democracies

The US has shown us that in properly functioning democracies, when one arm, such as the Legislature, fails, another one kicks in and restores balance. President Donald Trump had rallied the Senate and a part of the Executive to denounce democracy, but the Supreme Court stood in their way.

Back to Kenya, reforms like funding parties through the Exchequer have done little to clean up the rot in the parties. In fact, many people registered parties hoping to access funds from the Exchequer and not really to strengthen democracy.

The solution to this lies in empowering members of political parties to have a say on how their party is managed. That can be done through grassroots elections and drilling in the party vision and mission and letting the people fund the parties directly through membership drives. Jubilee, like many before it, never held party elections. Its leadership was populated on an interim basis.

Naturally, the credo that should inspire and instill belonging and loyalty to the party is missing. Additionally, laws on the disciplining and sanctioning of members should be reinforced. That will limit expulsions and disciplining members on subjective grounds.

Mr Guleid is CEO, Frontier Counties Development Council. [email protected]

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