Professional politicians creating democratic shortage

The prominence of professional politicians may lead to reduced public engagement with democracy. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

The rise of the professional politician has been a noted trend in recent years. The leaders of our major parties reflect this – Raila Odinga, Musalia Mudavadi, William Ruto and Kalonzo Musyoka, among others, in this category. There is also a long list of governors and MPs.

Researchers argue that although careerism is not quite as widespread as some claim, the prominence of professional politicians may lead to reduced public engagement with democracy.

There is broader academic and popular concern with the professionalisation of politics – the idea that politicians are increasingly drawn from a small group of individuals, many of whom have worked in politics in other capacities prior to running for elected office.

However, is this concern based on reality? Are all of the current generation of politicians a product of the backrooms of political parties? Unremarkably, it is not; the percentage of politicians who hold such occupations before becoming MPs hovers around the 15 per cent mark, according to recent research. But the fact that the number of politicians with such backgrounds is on the increase is significant.

Arguably, this is indicative of the prominence that these individuals achieve relative to their colleagues from different occupational backgrounds. Is this fair, healthy, or productive? What does it mean for our parliamentary democracy to have such influential roles dominated by such a small group of individuals? There are three main reasons why it could be a problem.

The first is that it seems to compound the distance between politics and the general public. People dislike politicians more than they dislike every other professional group. It has been argued by some that this is an inevitable by-product of democracy; that people get angry because they don’t get what they want.

However, part of the malaise surrounding contemporary Kenyan politics lies in a sense of disconnect between these professional politicians and the people. If you are a medical doctor, a plumber, a teacher, a civil servant or an engineer and you see the top of politics dominated by those drawn primarily from political backgrounds, not only do you feel disconnected from them, think that they would know little of your lived experience, but also that politics isn’t for people like you.

The second reason is that it makes democracy less representative and less fair. It isn’t right that any sole group dominates any aspect of political representation, although in this case, the argument is not that another group are under-represented, it is rather that this group is over-represented in top political positions.

What inherently makes this group better at holding high political office than others? It is unlikely that this small group of people is going to do a better job of representing the electorate than any other group.

Finally, think of all that we are missing out on when our politicians are drawn from such a blinkered section of society. The realm of government has become increasingly technical in recent decades, focused on economic management amongst other highly complex areas.

If our leading politicians, those in charge of the management of such things, have no direct experience of them or expertise in them, should we be surprised when they don’t do a particularly good job? With an increasing proportion of political leaders having occupational experience solely in politics, do they collectively possess enough functional expertise to effectively fulfill this management role?

Of course, it is possible to argue the opposite. We have professional lawyers, teachers, footballers and doctors. Why not have professional politicians, who know how politics works, and can get things done quickly and efficiently? To some extent, this is true – we do need politicians who do not have outside jobs, primarily because of how much time being an MP takes up.

Similarly, we need politicians with competence in the skills required of modern politics – the ability to process vast amounts of information and to speak well in public, amongst others. But it is hard not to acknowledge that there is something unsettling about a professionalised political class. Is a little more efficiency and knowledge worth the loss of interest and belief in politics that seems to attend?

Dr Wanjawa teaches at Pwani University