Elections, leaders and the politics of the primaries in Kenya

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Duncan Otieno reflects on the controversial 2017 party primaries in Kenya and argues that it is in the interests of party leaders to embrace the recent upsurge in independent candidates.


ONE of the most celebrated aspect of the Constitution of Kenya is the deepening of the democratic process and the Bill of Rights. Notably, Art 85 (a) and (b) CoK 2010 provides for the eligibility to vie as an Independent candidate. This has changed the face of Kenyan politics, and we now know that a large number of independent candidates will contest the 2017 election.

To begin with, most of these independent candidates were forced to be independent candidates as a result of what admittedly was shambolic nominations. They ditched their mother parties after feeling that they were defeated unfairly. In fact, while appearing on a weekly TV show, The Big Question, the flag bearer of the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) confessed that the nominations were deeply problematic, although he reiterated that his party did better as compared to the 2013 primaries. However, former party loyalists consider the remaining flaws in the primary process – for both main parties/coalitions – to have violated their political rights, hence justifying their decision to jump ship. With the prohibition of “party hopping”, going independent was the only relief available to frustrated candidates.

Whereas I agree with the over 3,800 independent candidates that they have a right to contest and have the people determine their fate come 8 August, I refuse to believe that all of them were rigged out — but that is a story for another day.

Party primaries are a critical ingredient in democratic consolidation and as such should not only be free and fair but must be seen to be so. Among all the major political coalitions, none conducted satisfactory processes, with many primaries needing to be re-run.

The rise of the independents

Now that we know how many independents there will be, we need to interrogate whether they enjoy any political capital. Opinion is divided among the political coalitions on whether the leading flag bearers should embrace the support of the independent candidates. Whereas the Deputy President openly acknowledged and accepted the support of this group, the NASA principals, while appearing on different platforms, categorically asked their supporters not to vote for any independent candidate. In fact, the Amani National Congress party leader asked the independent candidates to quit the race in favor of those who have party tickets.

Those denouncing the independent candidates need to be reminded that in politics, every vote counts. In a democrazy like ours which puts the presidential threshold very high (50% + 1) there is need for anyone who aspires to be president to harvest all the possible support that can come his/her way. So to openly denounce a huge constituency on the grounds that you want to be seen to be supporting the very same people who benefitted from unfair party primaries is bad politics.

In asking their supporters to vote for party candidates only, does Raila Odinga imply that he also doesn’t want the votes and support of the independent candidates? Why would, for instance, an independent candidate cast his/her vote for a presidential candidate, and back their efforts, when that candidate is busy campaigning against them? On this issue Odinga is surely wrong, and should be asked to reconsider his stand.

Instead, NASA should borrow a leaf from their Chief competitor, President Kenyatta who has been on a Gather All Scatter None mission, whereby he has been embracing support from any fringe party that has shown the alacrity of adopting him as their presidential candidate.

This makes sense, because it is in the interest of Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta to have these independent candidates compete fairly with their rivals. Allowing them to do so will not only energize their bases but also provide supporters of a wide range of candidates with an incentive to go to the polling stations and vote – for the president as well as for governors, senators and MPs. Failure to do so could increase vote apathy.

For the sake of promoting democracy, the country needs to demystify the notion of 6-piece voting. The risk of voting for parties instead of individuals is that you may stifle democracy. People should be elected on the basis of how best they are suited to tackle the socio-economic challenges affecting their constituents, not on the basis of possessing a party ticket which could have been fraudulently obtained.

The peculiar case of Peter Kenneth

A case in point is that of Independent candidate for the Nairobi gubernatorial race, Mr. Peter Kenneth (PK). Kenneth is admittedly more competent than some of the aspirants but it seems a lot of factors have conspired against him.

Whereas there are voters who find PK, more technically capable than the likes of Mike Sonko there are those who feel that the latter is the right man for the job. The mandarins of the Jubilee Party tried hard to prevail upon the populist Mike Sonko to forego his ambition in favor of PK, but to no avail. While the president’s handlers were trying hard to have PK elected, it is said that Deputy President William Ruto was also busy promoting Sonko.

Although on the surface this struggle is about who will represent Nairobi from 2017 onwards, it is also about rival political camps preparing their tickets for 2022. For their part, the Kikuyu elite thought that a successful campaign for the governorship would raise the profile of Kenneth in readiness for 2022, paving the way for a potential transfer of power into his hands. Against this, Ruto sought to promote Sonko – his new best friend – in order to blunt the threat that PK would be promoted ahead of him, frustrating his presidential ambitions.

Despite having lost the primary by some margin, PK has subsequently announced that he intends to contest as an independent. It is unclear whether this is because he genuinely believes he can win, wishes to act as a “spoiler”, or simply can’t resign himself to another political failure.

Kenneth’s move threatens the Jubilee Party and will put pressure on President Kenyatta’s “the more the merrier” approach, because a strong showing for Kenneth could split the government’s vote, allowing the opposition’s Dr. Evans Kidero to retain his seat. However, it may be counterproductive for Kenyatta to ask the electorate to shun an independent candidate – after all, in what may be a close contest he can ill afford to alienate his allies.

Let the people decide!

Duncan Otieno, is a Public Policy Commentator. Twitter@nyorude

(This article was first published by the Democracy in Africa, an online platform dedicated to building a bridge between academics, policymakers, practitioners and citizens)  

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