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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Party primaries not perfect, but necessary for democracy

First published Sunday Standard, April 30, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

As the dust settles from the hot season of the party primaries, the full implication for a future leadership and culture of integrity is yet to emerge. One thing is clear though, trying to understand what just happened from either a purely good or bad perspective is a prescription for a headache. The complexity of Kenya does not lend to binary thinking. It also does not help to have a “wait and see” or a cynical mindset. Let’s take a step back to frame what just happened.

Kenya has had 25 elections since 1920. Each of these elections saw the voter base expand, new and more complex electoral systems, policies and procedures. To put this in perspective, at independence, only 2.5 million Kenyans voted for 275 aspirants to take up 162 seats in our first independent Parliament (House of Representatives). Since then, tyranny of the single party and the single leader, incumbent rigging, queue voting experiments, sexism and ageism has robbed Kenya of free, peaceful and fair elections for most our independent life.

This history and current disillusionment with the mainstream political class has led some cynics to return to ancient Greece for inspiration. A long time ago somewhere around 508 BC, voters engaged in negative elections. Instead of voting for candidates to lead them, they voted who to send into exile for ten years. Perhaps this is the unstated theory of change of those that advocate for #FagiaWote.

The experience of last week’s primaries cannot be captured in a single narrative. #RedCardKE crusaders rejoiced at the fall of corrupt leaders in one end of the country and were dismayed at their ascendancy in another. In several upsets, six Governors and twenty-one MPs lost their seats. Who knows what would have happened if the performance of all 47 Governors had been subjected to the accountability of their party members?

Gender champions welcomed the election of several women nominees for all levels of government. Muranga, Bomet, Kirinyaga and Nakuru deserve some special mention here. The prospects for the first elected woman Senator and Governor is within reach. Should some of these “firsts” come wearing heels tainted with the mud of mega corruption scandals, feminists may be faced with some awkwardness soon. Youth champions welcomed the nomination of Stephen Sang. At thirty-two, Sang is a step away from becoming our youngest Governor and manager of Nandi county’s Kshs six billion budget.

Violence and death accompanied these primaries as well. Sadly, all the flashpoints – Homa Bay, Nairobi, Migori, Uasin Gishu and Kirinyaga – had been predicted. Apart from Homa Bay and Migori, police can be acknowledged for quickly moving in to disrupt the conflict. Also encouraging were some of the gracious victory and concessionary speeches by winners and losers. We are maturing beyond the “scorched earth” campaigns of the past.

On the other hand, IEBC’s hands off approach to the violence must change in the coming days. We cannot police our way through the coming elections alone. Stronger actions to hold candidates directly accountable for their wild followers must now be the deterrent. Parties can learn lessons from the dangers of knee jerk announcements, weak tallying systems and the mother of all, multiple voter registers.

Nevertheless, party primaries are now an important pillar of our democracy. We must strengthen their conduct and make them more credible across all parties not just the big ones. In doing this, we can stop the party hopping and leap frogging. We also need to stop the culture of direct nominations.

Direct nominations neither builds party accountability nor democratic practice. Several Governors got free passes this week and they shouldn’t have. Being patient, perhaps we can remind those with dirty hands that we shall still see them soon in the polling booth, Political Party Disputes Tribunal and the courts. It’s not personal or partisan.

Our conscience and our constitution demands as much.


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