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February 23, 2019

The real change we need in presidential elections

Toxic polls
Toxic polls

A major disadvantage of having to write an opinion column which is to be published on a Thursday when the presidential election was held two days earlier, is this: You cannot possibly comment on the one event that everyone considers to be really important.

We have just emerged from a highly charged election campaign period, with the partisans of both key candidates – President Uhuru Kenyatta and his main challenger, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga – utterly convinced that their side cannot lose.

And at the time of writing, the results of this election are being awaited with a combination of enthusiasm (“Surely our side will win”) and fear (“What will the other side do if our man wins?”).

So, would anybody really listen if I explained in some detail why the Japanese-funded Special Economic Zone being set up next to the Mombasa port will be a giant step forward in job creation? Or that - whatever its admitted flaws may be - the new standard gauge railway will hopefully lead to a huge expansion in tourism?

Both these projects – the SGR and the SEZ – are legacies of the Uhuru government. And yet, if Uhuru should win, it will have nothing to do with any such iconic development projects. It will be entirely due to his political skills.

In Kenya, we have this tragic disconnect between what people say they most deeply desire (more development) and what they will vote for (historically, Kenyans have always voted as directed by their regional political elites).

If development counted for anything, Raila would have beaten Uhuru back in 2013. For he was then PM of an outgoing government which had done much to bring about just that economic development that Kenyans claim to value so much.

Given this as our political reality, the question then arises: How can we bring about a permanent cleavage between our political choices and economic development?

In other words, since Kenyans are never going to choose development over tribe, how can we ensure that economic progress will continue, despite the political choices we make? I believe two of the ideas that have already been suggested by various experts before would go a long way towards creating a divide between economic stability and election chaos.

The first is that we revert to the Westminster model that we had before, in which the Head of Government is a Prime Minister, whose party has a parliamentary majority. We could then have – or not have – as President, a Head of State who is largely ceremonial, as is the case in many advanced democracies from Germany to India. (Britain, of course, has the Queen as Head of State).

Surely after all this tension and stress that we have gone through over the past few months, it is yet again clear that there is something inherently toxic in a Kenyan presidential election. Why, therefore, should we continue to inflict this deadly ritual on the nation, when there are other ways of choosing a head of state or head of government, which are far less devastating?

Failing the return to the Westminster model, there has been a suggestion of uncoupling presidential elections from the voting for all the other elective seats, and allow each president just a single seven-year term.

This way a presidential candidate would not have to worry about which county election was going for or against his preferred candidate; nor yet would there be the usual confused party primaries to poison the political atmosphere, and set the stage for allegations of rigging from losers.

If we must have an executive president, then let him or her be elected at a time when our vision is not clouded; when we do not have to consider who to vote for in all those other five seats that are currently contested at the same time as the presidency.

No doubt experts who know more about such things could come up with even better – and more balanced —ideas.

But the plain fact, firmly established, is that Kenyan presidential elections have proved to be such a destabilising factor to our country, that we cannot justify continuing to hold them every five years.

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