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September 19, 2018

Parties have their owners

Margaret Thatcher, who served as the British Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990, is one of the eminent global figures of the past 50 years.

But when you read her biography, you find that – despite being a woman of great talent and drive – she did not win a parliamentary seat on her first attempt.

Nor was she successful on the second attempt; nor yet on the third attempt; but only on her fourth attempt.

Even more strange, to those of us accustomed to Kenyan politics, the first two attempts were for a different seat (Dartford) from the third attempt (Orpington).

She actually emerged victorious only when she had become important enough as a promising young politician to be nominated by her Conservative Party for a “safe seat” (Finchley), which she then represented for more than 30 years.

My point in all this is that the road to electoral victory in any democracy is rarely a direct and simple one.

This is something that should be borne in mind by all those aspiring politicians who were so deluded as to imagine that a free and fair selection process awaited them in the party primaries of earlier this week.

Such politicians are now tearing their hair out; proclaiming from the rooftops that they have been betrayed; and vowing to find a different path to their manifest destinies as MPs, MCAs, governors and senators.

The question I would ask such candidates is simply this: Why did you not run as an independent in the first place? Why try to take the shortcut of riding on the back of an existing political party which – in that quaint Kenyan phrase – “has its owners”?

As the example of Thatcher illustrates, in Westminster, “the mother of parliaments”, the party leaders have the final say on who gets to run on their party ticket and who does not.

The only difference is that they are less hypocritical about it in the UK. They do not hold the kind of sham “party primaries” that have caused candidates in Kenya such anguish and humiliation right from the return to multiparty politics back in 1991.

The fact is that no ambitious politician with a national profile and presidential ambitions is ever going to go to all that trouble to create from scratch a major political party with strong regional support, and then allow newcomers to defeat his or her chosen favourites in the party primaries.

Each influential political party, as I said, “has its owners” in Kenya, as much as in the UK. And the notion of a “free and fair party primary” here in Kenya is something of a contradiction in terms. Especially when applied to a “party stronghold” where the party ticket more or less secures you the seat you covet.

In the UK, where political loyalty is to parties rather than to tribes, there is nothing unusual at all in an ambitious new member of a political party first being sent out to contest a seat they are certain to lose. That is what happened to Thatcher in her first two attempts.

And many other British politicians, who eventually rose to prominence, write of similar experiences during their early years in politics. Only when you are seen as being of potential value to a political party are you then nominated (by a committee and not through a party primary election) to contest for a seat you have a chance of winning.

But back to Kenya, I have a few unkind words for those who are not close associates of the “owners” of the political party whose ticket they sought in the party primaries:

I would say these men and women were misguided in their strategy for electoral office. And that they were lazy and sought the easy way out.

They had no business going into all that trouble of printing posters and hiring “agents” and sponsoring roadshows and the rest of it.

They should have sat out this circus and focussed all their energy and resources on running as independent candidates from the outset.

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