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Does voting come from the heart or the head?

Azimio-One Kenya alliance running mate Martha Karua and UDA'S Rigathi Gachagua during the running mates debate at CUEA on July 19, 2022.

Hopefully, we are now entering the final fortnight of “Kivumbi 2022”. Hopefully, because we urgently need to step out of this cyclical “twilight zone” where everything stops because of an election.

We all know there won’t be too many problems in the “down ballot” races for Governor, Senator, MP, Women Rep or MCA. This sadly suggests that, despite our 2010 constitution of, by and for the people, we continue to hinge our future on one role: The Presidency.

 Achieving this presidency thing, like the others, but more significantly, is a game of numbers. This isn’t unique to Kenya; every election is a competition, and votes are its metric.

Our modelling-planning-execution process is pretty simple: Tribal/regional kingpins get you their tribes/regions.

But Kenya is two parts. There’s the “Big 5” part (Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo, Kamba) that is 60-65 per cent of the vote. Then there’s the rest of us – the 35 to 40 per cent of Kenya’s 37 (or more) other “peoples”. Modelling, you say? Isn’t this basic arithmetic?

 Well, the smart voter goes with their interests. Competence is probably an increasingly important requirement for governors and MCAs, though clannism and negotiated democracy still matter.

Skill is probably less important for the voter in their senator and MP picks, though it should be.

At the top, though, ethnic calculus still matters.

Don’t be fooled by the euphemism we call “region”. The outsider in any region – Nairobi being nobody’s region - will pick local competence for local roles, but will invariably go for “the green grass of home” when it comes to the president.

 In truth, you can bet your last shilling that our neat, tidy and high-profile Presidential Campaign Secretariats and their ultra-modern, high-tech, super-networked Campaign Command Centres still have one or two people in a quiet corner working on Excel spreadsheets running all manner of ethnic turnout and voting scenarios. Beyond these “in-house” efforts, you might also find predictive offerings across social media and cyberspace on the final result of the Presidential vote.

 There’s even one user-friendly Excel tool I came across – for a two-horse race - that allows you to do your own tribal modelling with two options – model everything (tribal turnout percentage and voter percent split by candidate) from zero, or more interestingly, model these percentages starting from a 50:50 position (which requires adjusting upwards and downwards for each “horse”).

 That our votes remain tightly embedded in identity and individuals before we look for issues and ideas, says two things, neither of which is necessarily bad.

 First, old habits die hard; voting comes from the heart, not the head. The science of this stuff attempts to convince us that voting is neither logical nor rational. Second, the shift to issues and ideas reflects our increasing realisation that the high cost of living, inequality, unemployment and poverty is not always tribal or ethnic.

 Which in a roundabout way brings me to today’s subject. Please save the spreadsheets for now. Let’s first agree that it’s not simply an “either/or” dichotomy between identity/individuals on one hand and issues/ideas on the other.

 The point about moving towards “issue-based” politics in Kenya is about finding the individuals that get the issues, and their solutions, not because of where they come from, but because of what they credibly commit to. That’s what everything in our Kenyan dream from the 2010 Constitution to Vision 2030 envisages.

 Let’s turn to two important developments in our journey towards issue-based politics. The first was the launch of manifestos. This is not new, but it is older than many think. KANU has launched a manifesto at each election since independence, even when it was the only official party in town.

 In the second multi-party era, the 44-page National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) manifesto on Democracy and Empowerment was probably the most memorable, in two very different ways. First, it offered a mobilizing source of practical hope and inspiration to the people in supporting the “Yote Yawezekana” rallying call of the time: this was its political purpose in securing electoral victory.

 Second, it provided the foundation for Kenya’s shift from traditional national development planning and poverty reduction strategy papers to the hugely successful 2003-2007 Economic Recovery Strategy for Wealth and Employment Creation (ERS) that prefaced Vision 2030.

 In 2022, we have four manifestos from the four political formations offering presidential candidates. For reasons offered later below, this column will not offer detailed comparisons. But it is fair to state that Azimio’s feels the most conservative in terms of traditional prescriptions; Kenya Kwanza’s more specific plan in parts offers innovative new ways to deal with some of our intractables; the Roots Party wants to take us on a trip; and Agano wants to give us a clean start.

This is not as differentiated as it sounds at first. Think of Azimio’s agenda towards a social contract (ironically, Agano); Kenya Kwanza’s agenda around empowerment; The Roots Party’s subtle, and not so subtle, rallying call for self-reliance, and Agano’s demands for restitution.

This is not to say that the manifestos are the same – there are important explicit and implied differences in the philosophical, policy and programmatic directions between them – but they all seek to point Kenya forwards. Purely on issues and ideas, the question is, who convinces you? Who keeps you on Earth, takes you to the Moon, lands you on Mars or flies you towards the Sun?

I will argue that our media fraternity has taken us into a second opportunity to build our issue-based politics; the Presidential Debate series. It is one thing for our politicos to bombard the public with blather, blarney and bluster on the campaign trail in the name of promises.

It is another to engage with one another in a reasoned debate that explains manifestos, clarifies policy positions, agrees to disagree, and convinces us of the wholesomeness of their electoral campaign platforms.

So far, we’ve had the Nairobi County gubernatorial debate, where we learnt more from the fringe candidates than the main protagonists; and the Deputy Presidential (or Running Mate?) debate, where the fringe debate gave as much light as the main one offered heat.

 With both main debates, you left feeling you had just watched an eventful but fruitless goalless draw in a football game.

Next Tuesday offers an excellent chance to see if this changes. Of course, at the time of writing, the splitting of debates between “Ligi Ndogo” and “Premier League” has clearly raised hackles before we watch or listen to the actual Presidential candidates.

A little bit of imagination might have reorganized the event into a three-hour double-header (all four candidates at once in two sessions with a break would afford the same amount of talk time to each candidate as the current two-tier arrangement). But that is a subject beyond this column.

However, as suggested, Tuesday’s debate offers the opportunity to get a three-dimensional view from candidates on their plans for Kenya.

[On Sunday Azimio announced Raila Odinga will not participate in the debate as did George Wajackoyah of Roots Party- Editor]

The first dimension is simple: what does your party manifesto promise and commit to?

The second is its reverse: how does your party manifesto address the issues of the day?

 The third is its triangulation: What are the issues of the day that your manifesto seeks to address?

These are not three questions but three angles to the same question. It is the sort of triangulation that gets us to understand if, say, bottom-up economics could actually fix crony capitalism and its evil cousin, state capture, as we hear? Or if it is a fair, rather than welfare, society, that Kenya needs today? Or how do we begin our journey to self-reliance in an IMF straightjacket?

Or how do we improve living standards even as we address the cost of living? Or what do we need to do about haemorrhaging public investments from KQ to Kenya Power with continuing bailouts, subsidies and other freewheeling uses of public funds above and below the line?

And we haven’t even got to the sectoral stuff – education, health, housing, water, environment, energy, or the modern stuff – green/circular/bio-economy, 24-hour economy or digital economy.

Wait! Shouldn’t we also use the debate as a quick test of character as much as it is a test of ideas?

 Aristotle, one of the great philosophers of Ancient Greece might help us here. To quote him “Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, provided by the words of the speech itself”.

 We call the first ETHOS, the second PATHOS and the third LOGOS. We will leave that here.

 But before we get back to our ethnic census spreadsheets, and accept that debates everywhere tend to be slugfests rather than seminars, should we look forward to a content-rich Tuesday debate that accords with Aristotle’s three persuasions?