One feature of a mature democracy is the right of candidates for public office to stand for election as independents – without any party affiliation. This should be a core basic human right in every democracy, whether mature, putative, or aspiring. It’s a recognition of one basic truism – that political parties are voluntary organisations to which individuals can either associate, or disassociate. But it’s more.
It’s an acceptance that individuals should be free to reject parties and that parties may not represent the whole range of ideological and moral choices acceptable to every individual. It’s a repudiation of the assertion that parties are the only guardians of democracy. The right of independent candidacies is a vindication of an individual’s right of conscience.
One of the geniuses of the 2010 Kenya Constitution is the right of independent candidacies to stand for office. It took away the monopoly of political parties to be the sole determinants of who is elected to public office. In Kenya, where parties are not worth the piece of paper on which they are registered, one can see why independent candidates can be the saviours of democracy. Kenyan politicians are largely vacuous, bereft of ideology, and beholden to tribal barons. They suffer from a deep psychosis of the poverty of philosophy. That’s why political parties mutate every month, and why politicians change them like soiled T-shirts. It’s difficult to see how political parties can claim a high moral ground over independents.
Let me make one thing clear. I am not suggesting that independents should be the centre of gravity of Kenyan politics. No. We need strong ideologically sound political parties to run the state.
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However, in the absence of such parties, or even in their presence, independents play the crucial role of taming the deficits of political parties and giving voters and individual citizens their right to freely stand for office alone, or vote for the candidate of their choice irrespective of party affiliation. This is an unarguable constitutional right. That’s why I was flabbergasted to see the IEBC treat independents as a nuisance.
Equally unacceptable are the attacks by party bosses and their candidates suggesting that independents are somehow illegitimate. That said, let me give you a taxonomy – typology – of independent candidates. They range from the sane to the insane and the very moral to the very immoral. But this is not unique to them – they share these traits with party candidates. All candidates – whether party-less or affiliated – go from the sublime to the surreal. But this is fine, and shouldn’t be reason for condemnation. After all, no two people are like.
If any two people were exactly alike – mind you even identical twins aren’t exactly alike – then one of them would be unnecessary. Our diversity is our strength. This is the reason the Constitution celebrates diversity in all its many and often complex expressions. Now the taxonomy.
The first typology of an independent candidate is the “individual egoist.” This is the ungoverned egomaniacal eccentric who believes that they are better than everyone else, and refuses to work as part of a community, organisation, or party unless they are the unquestioned leader. This independent is a lone wolf and social misfit. He’s usually deeply insecure and comes unhinged at the slightest provocation. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out which of this type is today running for office in Kenya as an independent. But these bizarre, often unmoored candidates have their utility to society. They can say or do things that will either open our eyes, or confirm to us the limits of immorality. The second typology is hewn in the cloth of “political harlotry.” This type of independent has no moral compass – he’s at once amoral and immoral. He’s not anchored in any ideology and driven purely by banal self-interest. Every sentence in his limited vocabulary begins with “me,” “I,” and “myself.” He’s the type of fellow who’s always coveting what is not his. Political greed defines him. He will make any deal – short of literally selling his children – to ensure a win. That’s why the political harlot doesn’t care which party carries him – as long as carries him to victory. He’s the quintessential opportunist. To hear him tell it, the latest party he’s just joined is the best thing since sliced bread.
Finally, there’s the “moralist,” a “purist” who finds political parties to be works of filthy and unethical compromise. This independent is not a pragmatist but a dreamer doomed to live in the political wilderness. It’s a contradiction he abhors political parties yet believes he should be in active politics. He’s a naïve and pitiable character who’s roadkill for professional politicians. To be fair, he reminds us of the goodness in all of us. Let’s embrace all these independents.
- The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and chair of KHRC.