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January 21, 2019

Democracy usually this messy

Democracy is usually this messy
Democracy is usually this messy

There are two key components of ‘democracy’.

First, and possibly more important, there are what we may call “democratic values”. These include such things as an emphasis on individual liberties, state accountability, equal and fair treatment under the law, minority rights, and so on.

These really relate to the fundamental beliefs and constitutional principles that are the foundation of any democracy. And they are what we hear in lofty speeches here in Kenya, often after some mention of “our great nation”.

But then there is the actual practice of democracy, the nuts and bolts of it, so to speak. And this is where things get messy. For at this level, democracy is essentially a fairly crude race – a competition for partisan votes, usually involving unprincipled and power-hungry politicians.

Consider the ruling Jubilee Party, for example: Some months back, JP was formed by a merging of about a dozen smaller political parties, as a means of gathering all of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s supporters into one big tent – politically speaking. This was considered vital to the President’s reelection strategy. And it was generally believed that in those areas defined as “Jubilee zones”, obtaining the JP ticket in the primaries was a virtual guarantee of victory at the August 8 general election.

But since then, what we have seen is various prominent politicians fleeing from JP as though it were contaminated. And why are they doing this? Primarily because they are well aware that political party primaries in Kenya are, by definition, pre-rigged in favour of chosen candidates, and they cannot be sure that they will be the direct beneficiaries of such rigging. So they prefer to keep their options open.

On the other side of the political aisle, in the National Super Alliance, a different problem exists. In JP the serving President who is seeking reelection is not likely to have any internal competition.

But NASA has a surplus of qualified candidates, each of whom is a party leader in his own right, with followers keen to see their party boss as the chosen presidential candidate for a united opposition.

So on one day we hear the former VP Kalonzo Musyoka, leader of Wiper, declare that the opinion polls which had him as the third choice of the NASA-leaning public were false polls, designed to mislead the public.

Before that we had heard former Deputy PM Musalia Mudavadi announce that nothing could be more obvious than that he was the candidate best placed to make Uhuru Kenyatta a one-term President.

Raila Odinga’s hardcore supporters will argue all day and all night that nobody has sacrificed more for the advance of democracy in Kenya than their hero, and that his selection as the presidential candidate for a united opposition can only be seen as a forgone conclusion. And so on.

Now in the eyes of many Kenyan voters, what is evident on a daily basis in the activities of leaders, great and small, of both the two main political coalitions, can best be defined as “squabbling”.

That it may well be. But we could not claim to live in a democracy if such vicious infighting for the party nominations were not part of the “horse race” process of political competition. For such a wild and undignified scramble for high office is as much a part of democracy as the lofty ideals we are constantly reminded of.

What some deplore as “squabbling” is really no more than proof of the existence of the open and democratic process that many Kenyans fought for (and some died for) in the 1990s.

Prior to that, in the days when Kenya was a single-party state, there was far less squabbling. And everyone also knew why it was pointless to squabble. For the only thing that really mattered was whether or not you were viewed as a desirable candidate by the President and his men.

Many of the most courageous and independent minded leaders were arbitrarily “expelled” from the “ruling party” (which was of course the only political party in the country) thus putting an end to their political careers. And we should all be grateful that this is no longer possible.

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