Ruto's firm grip on Parliament on show again amid Azimio protests

President William Ruto. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

Whatever President William Ruto wants, he gets, thanks to the firm grip he has on the bicameral Parliament, a body fashioned to check the excesses of the Executive.

The Head of State commands a majority in both the National Assembly and the Senate. He has used those numbers to have contested pieces of legislation pass, making light work of the opposition’s resistance.

Just like his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta, who enjoyed power over parliament that seemed like an appendage of his Executive, Ruto too has both Houses under his armpit.

All the signs point towards the retention of the status quo, with Parliament seemingly a puppet of the president.

Opposition lawmakers have lamented that their Kenya Kwanza counterparts have become “voting machines.”

This was the case during the debate on the Social Health Insurance Act, which replaced the National Health Insurance Fund. Amendments by Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya were shot down as soon as they were proposed. Such included an amendment by Nairobi Senator Edwin Sifuna,  proposing to limit contributions to the new health insurance scheme to Sh2,000 and have NHIF employees retain their jobs in the new programme.

“What we have now is a Parliament that is basically a conveyor belt for the Executive’s agenda. The independence has been totally lost. Ruto is both the Executive and Legislature because in both places, his word is law,” said Sifuna.

“I think this happened immediately after Ruto was sworn in. You will remember Azimio had a majority in the National Assembly before he set about buying small parties from Azimio to manufacture an artificial majority,” said the ODM secretary general.

Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei, however, sees their role as Kenya Kwanza lawmakers as being to ensure the president succeeds in implementing his manifesto and fulfilling the promise he made to Kenyans.

“We will use our numbers to ensure the president’s agenda is fully implemented,” said Cherargei, adding their actions did not mean Kenya Kwanza MPs had ceded Parliament’s independence.

He added: “Parliament is an independent arm of government. It is a law-making organ that makes laws for all Kenyans and not a select group. No right-thinking MP would shoot down a proposal by the opposition that makes sense. The problem with Azimio’s amendments is that they are politically motivated to undermine and ridicule the president, which we shall not allow.”

Indeed, MPs have always acted as voting machines when defending their coalitions’ positions. The numbers game has always favoured the majority, and hence the president’s charm offensive to win over Azimio lawmakers.

An astute politician, Ruto understands what he could achieve with Parliament in his hands. His policies, no matter how controversial they may be, are guaranteed smooth sailing, as evidenced by the passing of the Finance Act 2023, a controversial law that the majority of stakeholders opposed owing to its hefty taxes.

ODM leader Raila Odinga has occasionally stated that Ruto’s intention was to use his numbers to “establish a one-party state”.

Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga. [File, Standard]

But Raila, too, has previously facilitated the Executive’s encroachment of Parliament. In the wake of his March 2018 handshake with Uhuru, opposition MPs teamed up with the former president’s allies to bulldoze their wishes in Parliament, the most significant being the Building Bridges Initiative. Besides the support of lawmakers, Uhuru also secured utmost loyalty from speakers of the bicameral House, a lesson not lost on Ruto.

Days after Sifuna raised the red flag, National Assembly Minority Leader Opiyo Wandayi wrote to Speaker Moses Wetang’ula to have Nominated lawmaker Sabina Chege removed as the deputy minority whip, a decision he had deferred for far too long.

In a letter to Wetang’ula, the Ugunja MP highlighted how the speaker had blocked Sabina’s removal courtesy of temporary court orders, but was reluctant to implement subsequent orders okaying Sabina’s replacement by Embakasi West MP Mark Mwenje.

Mwenje’s Jubilee Party would also write to Wetang’ula over the same, stating that it had noted a “concerning pattern of actions that have consistently undermined the integrity of the National Assembly”.

In the letter, Jubilee Secretary General Jeremiah Kioni faulted Wetang’ula for a litany of issues, including the speaker’s ruling on which, between Azimio and Kenya Kwanza, was the majority party, allegedly allowing party hopping and his reluctance to have Sabina ejected as deputy minority whip.

“In light of these critical developments, it is imperative that you, Honorable Speaker, fulfil your administrative responsibilities without delay. This includes promptly communicating the court’s ruling that affirms you have no role in micro-managing political parties or coalitions within parliament,” Kioni wrote.

Senate Speaker Amason Kingi also faced similar criticism when he initially chose not to have Isiolo Senator Fatuma Dulo ousted as minority whip courtesy of temporary court orders. Both Sabina and Dulo are members of Jubilee, who now back Ruto.

Azimio’s argument has always been that the speakers have acted swiftly on decisions that favoured the president and undermined the opposition’s various positions. A case in point was Wetang’ula’s ruling on Wednesday, October 24, that granted Jubilee parliamentary party status in spite of the fact that the party is officially part of Azimio. Wandayi protested that move, too.

“It is our view that any attempt to recognise the Jubilee Party as a parliamentary party, under the present circumstances, is not only ill-advised but also a brazen contravention of the Constitution and the law. Such a move would be an affront to the rule of law and multiparty democracy,” wrote Wandayi.

The matter of Jubilee is a hot potato and it features in the ongoing talks as Azimio pushes for respect for party independence. It was among the reasons that collapsed the first round of talks.

Former speakers also earned accusations of employing such tactics to frustrate the opposition. As National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi, now Attorney General, and his then-Senate counterpart Kenneth Lusaka, now Bungoma Governor, often faced criticism for forcing through Uhuru’s wishes.