Why leader of opposition's office won't make much difference

Azimio leader Raila Odinga addressing the media at SKM Centre on September 16, 2023. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

One of the agenda items in the bipartisan talks is a proposal by Kenya Kwanza to create the office of the leader of the opposition. While any proposal that strengthens our democracy is welcome, our lack of ideology-based parties questions how effective the office will be able to offer alternative policies.

For many, the primary justification for creating this office is to provide a platform for scrutinising public policy. Experience shows society benefits when public policy is subjected to close scrutiny because robust debate helps to weed out bad ideas while affirming alternative ones. Kenyans hope establishing an office that aggregates opposition forces will not only strengthen our democracy, but it will also provide an important check to political excesses in a country where pro-government politicians are canvassing for lifetime presidency.

Besides the philosophical arguments, there are two other key reasons many Kenyans are betting on the office of the leader of the opposition. Firstly, many hope the office will be attractive enough to serve as a consolation prize for candidates who lose presidential elections. By making the office attractive, many hope it will deter losing candidates from fomenting the type of post-election violence witnessed a year ago and which has become an existential threat to the Kenyan state.

A second reason is to cure the current anomaly where the leader of the largest party finds himself without a constitutional office after losing presidential elections. Creating an office in Parliament for the leader of the largest party will not only ensure better coordination of opposition forces, it will give the office holder access to information that is critical for keeping the government on its toes.

While there are clearly numerous and strong arguments for creating an office for the leader of the opposition, the fact that our political parties are not founded on ideologies poses a number of challenges that undermine its effectiveness.

The history of Kenyan political parties is replete with many examples where an opposition chief was neutered after being invited for ugali at State House. In other cases, opposition party members were induced to defect in order to whittle down the number of anti-establishment forces in Parliament. As the wooing of opposition party members to Kenya Kwanza side illustrates, lack of party allegiance is a chronic scandal that cannot be cured without strong ideological foundations.

Besides widespread party indiscipline, an area of greater concern is that lack of ideologies means the office will not have a basis for evaluating and framing public policy. In more advanced democracies like the US where politicians are divided between Republican and Democratic parties, issues are routinely filtered through conservative and liberal ideologies resulting in diverse economic policy prescriptions.

Although the Kenya Kwanza administration does not espouse any ideology, it displays a liberal orientation in that it feels duty-bound to provide economic and social needs of the citizens. Accordingly, the paternalistic view of the Kenya Kwanza has heightened the need for enhanced funding to meet budgetary proposals and a large debt exposure.

In an ideologically diverse environment, a conservative inclined opposition would have asked the Ruto Administration to cut back on government expenditure in order to reduce pressure on interest rates. On social policy, the Kenya Kwanza affordable housing project would also have been criticised for intruding on personal freedoms and for trespassing in provision of services that are best provided by a more efficient private sector.

Notwithstanding lack of ideologies Kenyan opposition parties have done a sterling job of checking the excesses of successive government especially during the period of one-party rule. For that reason, creation of the office of the leader of the opposition will have some value even if restricted to this traditional role. However, as politics becomes more issue-based, it will be incumbent to have political parties with the requisite ideological foundation to frame public policy. A leader of the opposition without the ideological foundation will only be a glorified heckler of no use to anyone.

Mr Githieya is a political and economic analyst. [email protected]

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