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September 19, 2018

An open letter to Independent winners

First, warm congratulations on your win. It can’t have been easy. Kenyans expect candidates to belong to parties, and do not seem very accepting of people, who they think of as odd balls, bucking the system.

Of course, some of you were really the candidates one party would have chosen; you are not really “non-party” people.

Commiserations to those independent candidates who campaigned hard and honestly, and were not elected.

Now you are in office as independent members — or, in two cases, as independent governors. One independent county woman representative, 11 members of the National Assembly and 105 independent MCAs— between just one each of in 11 counties, to as many as seven in Migori ( 17.5 per cent of the ward members — but they will be a smaller percentage of the whole assembly, because there can be no independent list members). This leaves just 12 counties with no independent MCAs.

It’s a good moment to stop and think about what it means to be an “independent” in a body mainly of party members.

 

WHY INDEPENDENTS?

It is because of the 2010 Constitution that you were even able to stand as an independent. While Kenya was in law a one-party state, only Kanu members could stand. But when multiparty rule returned, the law about being a member of a party remained. This law protected parties and party bosses, but not necessarily democracy.

One important reason for allowing independents to stand is simply human rights: To allow people to participate in elections without the necessity of belonging to a party, and to allow voters the possibility of voting for people who do not necessarily fit into the straitjacket of a party.

People have also suggested that ICs can bring fresh ideas into the political system. In 2012, one Kenyan wrote, “Independent candidates will be a breath of fresh air in our politics, these individuals will not have to toe party lines and submit to hero worship; they will have their eyes on the ball, serving those who elected them.” Ironically, in this election that person was elected to the Senate on a party ticket!

In our system, votes are generally for single individuals standing to represent a geographical area. Why should people vote for parties rather than individuals? The Bomas draft in 2004 in fact said candidates for the Senate should not stand on party tickets. When we had a parliamentary system, the make-up of the National Assembly was very important in deciding who was the government. But now, we separately elect a President, who cannot be an MP. Arguably, for the President to have a large majority undermines the separation of powers that is supposed to be an important check on abuse of powers by the President — same at the county level.

 

YOU CAN’T CHANGE HORSES IN MID-STREAM

You stood as an independent. The Constitution makers took the view that if being a party member (or non-member) was a part of your appeal to the voters; you owed it to them not to change. If you party-hop now, you are supposed to lose your seat, and there must be another election so that the voters can decide if they still want you now you have changed your spots. This does not apply to governors.

 

YOUR ROLE AND STRATEGIES

You can feel some confidence that the voters really wanted you. They did not choose you just because you were the face of the party (which means the local face of a particular big man).

This gives you both possibilities and responsibilities. You are less constrained in the choices you make about how to vote, the points you make in committees and the full house. You are not subject to any whip (“You must vote or else”).

You are free, in other words, to act in the interest of your voters. Of course, it must be in the interests of all the people of your constituency or ward, not just those who you think voted for you. You must put the constituents first — but never forgetting the interests of the country, and your county as a whole.

This does not mean, for you or any other elected person, that you simply follow the line that your people want. Ours is not a system of government by referendum or opinion survey. It is a representative and participatory democracy. You should consider that you were elected for your personal qualities—hopefully of intelligence, understanding, ability to form and express a view, and integrity. You should exercise those qualities for the good of the electorate, the county and the country.

You have to work harder than a party member — especially a large-party member. Large party members have an easier time getting their voices heard. You need to strategise. A party can have a division of labour with members focussing on different issues, or having different strengths. Accept that you cannot be an expert on everything. But you can develop new skills — such as an understanding of certain policy areas, or careful analysis of Bills.

In identifying and developing your own contributions and skills, you should bear in mind why you were elected. What did you promise your people? Was it fighting corruption whole-heartedly, or pressing for better schools, was it pushing to ensure that the diversity of Kenya is recognised in public appointments? Whatever it was, it should remain on your agenda. But there will be many other issues you have to deal with once elected.

When expressing views on the committees you wish to join, the fact that you are an independent is relevant. A large-party member can be confident that the party views will be reflected in any committee. You can only be in one or two. Consider not only where your own abilities and knowledge will be most useful, but where the needs of your electorate would best be heard, understood and acted upon.

Standing Orders say that select committees should reflect the membership of house — party or independents. They also speak of the interests of independents being protected. Independents are 3.4 per cent of the National Assembly. They should organise to ensure that their voices are heard in committees. They may not all agree on policies, but they all want to be heard.

Participatory democracy means you must give your electorate, and others, a chance to express their own views on issues. You should help them understand those issues. And you should keep an open mind, prepared to listen, understand their viewpoints and be prepared to express them if they are valid and contribute to the national debate.

If you really want to make an impact, seek the help of like-minded NGOs. You can get help in thinking through issues, drafting Bills. Former legislators may also be prepared to help. Hone your negotiating skills: If there is a close vote, you may be able to get support for your aims in return for your support for a party policy. Develop links with the media, which can amplify your voice.

You are now a state officer: The Constitution imposes various duties on you, most notably under Chapter Six on integrity. “Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest”.

 

THE FUTURE OF PARTIES

Parties will not disappear. But we have not had real parties — meaning bodies that mobilise public opinion, organise people with similar views and interests for political activities, provide channels to bring public opinion to bear on the policies of the government and hold it accountable to Parliament or County Assembly and the people, and ensure discipline in the conduct of public affairs. These are the purposes of parties envisaged in the first constitution draft, of 2002.

Independents will actually improve parties: Stimulate them to think and organise better and hopefully, spur the development of real parties, not ethnic fan clubs for individuals.

You have already made an important contribution to democracy. Our best wishes for your future democratic endeavours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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