COLLECTIVIST MINDSET

Why most MPs serve only one term

One is a feeling of being let down. Of promises not kept.

In Summary
  • Development projects of which MPs are so proud, generally speaking, cannot save them from the wrath of the voters.
  • The very same people who help lift up a man into Parliament by the power of their votes, will almost immediately thereafter be eager to tear him down.

There is a question I often raise with serving members of Parliament when I meet them: “What have you been able to do for the good people of your constituency?”

And the response is often much the same: almost without exception, the MP immediately goes into a detailed account of the classrooms built; the scholarships given; the piping of clean water to remote villages which had previously relied on filthy seasonal ponds; etc…

And it is not just the words: I have yet to see an MP who speaks with casual indifference when talking of their constituents. On the contrary, their eyes shine; they gesture expansively; and they demonstrate an earnestness that is impressive to behold.

And yet as we all know, none of this is of much use. These development projects of which MPs are so proud, generally speaking, cannot save them from the wrath of the voters. So the question is, if they try so hard to serve their constituents, why do so many of them lose in their bid for re-election?

When the age of social media came upon us, I thought I had an answer. I assumed that the 70 per cent of MPs who lose their seats with every election was a reflection of the contempt that most Kenyans (and certainly most Kenyans active on social media) feel towards their MPs. For you will rarely see a kind word about any serving MP.

This is a conviction that if there is some benefit to be received – no matter what the source of that benefit – then this good thing should be shared equally within the community. And unfortunately for MPs, their newly acquired, ultra-conspicuous consumption tends to signal that they are the principal beneficiaries of their elevation to Parliament.

Invariably they are portrayed as vainglorious, inaccessible, short-sighted and venal; concerned only with their new house in some high-end suburb of Nairobi; eager only to fly off to some foreign capital for a conference or workshop; and usually at the beck and call of their party leaders (without whose assistance, in many cases, they would not have won their seat at all).

But this cannot be the whole story.

There is an odd dualism at work here, in that the very same people who help lift up a man into Parliament by the power of their votes, will almost immediately thereafter be eager to tear this man down, and support someone else.

I believe there are two forces at play here:

First is what I referred to in my column last week as the “collectivist mindset” which dominates many Kenyan communities. This is a conviction that if there is some benefit to be received – no matter what the source of that benefit – then this good thing should be shared equally within the community. And unfortunately for MPs, their newly acquired, ultra-conspicuous consumption tends to signal that they are the principal beneficiaries of their elevation to Parliament.

In the mind of any unemployed Kenyan or any Kenyan parent who has seen their child sent home for school fees, lies a furious desire to bring down those who lied to him or her at the last election that such problems would soon be a thing of the past.

Second is a feeling of being let down. Of promises not kept. Especially in the matter of promises of economic opportunity for the grown-ups and scholarships for the school-going children. In the mind of any unemployed Kenyan or any Kenyan parent who has seen their child sent home for school fees, lies a furious desire to bring down those who lied to him or her at the last election that such problems would soon be a thing of the past. The reality that there isn’t enough money for everyone is not considered to be relevant here.

The American filmmaker, Michael Moore, one of the very few people to have predicted Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential race, used this same frame of reference to explain that surprising electoral outcome.

He said that in the eyes of many working-class Americans who had seen manufacturing jobs vanish from their community, and blamed an elite-driven globalisation for this,  Trump was a “hand grenade” that they were eager to fling at Washington DC, which they considered to be the source of all their misery.

Both these perspectives combine to produce what I once heard referred to, on a visit to Australia, as “the Tall Poppy Syndrome”. One writer summarised it as follows:

“…according to the unspoken national ethos, no Australian is permitted to assume that he or she is better than any other Australian…It has a name—The “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. The tallest flowers in the field will be cut down to the same size as all the others.”