• Parties must have a democratically elected governing body, and generally respect democratic principles, including having regular, fair and free internal elections.
• A party must not be based on things such as ethnicity, religion or region. You might say the drafters hoped they would be based on class and political ideology. It would not be possible to have a woman’s party or a Christian party.
The Constitution has a vision of many things, including political parties.
Parties were thought of as playing an important role in moving away from ethnic politics.
In a country with a history of one-partyism, this was perhaps particularly difficult. A country with only one party is a country with no party. The very existence of parties implies there are a variety of political policies or even ideologies. But if everyone belongs to one party, there is no variety, and maybe no real ideology.
Kenya emerged from one-partyism in 1992. Much of the pressure for this was closely connected with the desire to get rid of President Daniel Moi. Some of this was connected with the objection to Moi’s policies, but much of it to his discrimination against other communities, as well, of course, as his savage intolerance of any disagreement. And, sure enough, multi-partyism came to mean multiple ethnic groupings.
Another historical factor might be colonialism — party leaders have continued the divide-and-rule approach of the colonial rulers.
So the constitution-makers pinned much hope on the revitalisation of parties, not as fan clubs for ethnic leaders, but as genuine developers of policies and mobilisers of the people.
The idea was most fully developed in the first draft during the official constitution-making process: The Constitution of Kenya Review Commission draft of 2002. It defined parties as “civil society organisations the functions of which are the fostering of democratic processes in government and the country and the participation of people in the political process”.
Then it explained how this was to be done. A party would mobilise public opinion. It would “foster national values and outlook” (not a narrow ethnic perspective). It would organise the people with “similar views and interests” for political activities – such as campaigning for elections. It would be a way for public views to be brought to bear on government policies. And be a tool for holding government accountable. Finally, it would be a way of keeping discipline in the conduct of public affairs.
Unfortunately, the Committee of Experts abandoned the attempt to describe the function of parties. But it — and the final Constitution — retained a notion of the way parties ought to be run, and what they ought not to be about.
.Parties must have a democratically elected governing body, and generally respect democratic principles, including having regular, fair and free internal elections.
A party must not be based on things such as ethnicity, religion or region. You might say the drafters hoped they would be based on class and political ideology. It would not be possible to have a woman’s party or a Christian party.
Interestingly, the CKRC draft provided that a party could not be “founded purely on a religious, linguistic, racial, ethnic, sex, or regional basis”. This suggested that part of the basis might be religious or gender, or whatever.
Parties are also supposed to be national, rather than local. They must “promote and uphold national unity” Incidentally, the CKRC draft provided that a local party might be registered for elections at what is now county level.
Parties are supposed to be disciplined institutions, run efficiently, with audited accounts. And they are assumed to have a membership (how else could they have internal elections?). And there is an assumption that being a member, especially elected to a public position, means something — like standing for some ideology or policies. This is why a person elected to Parliament for a party, in theory, loses his or her seat on leaving the party.
Parties are also supposed to avoid violence and corruption.
Whatever the vision, we know that Kenyan parties are almost all established to support the ambitions of particular politicians. A few have some semblance of ideology, while a few seem to be merely clubs to enable individuals to stand for election — even advertising for candidates.
Registration has been a total failure so far as preventing ethnic parties is concerned. It seems that what is essentially a Kikuyu and Kalenjin alliance, or a Kamba party, or a Luhya party, have had no problem. Other sectarian interests are less fortunate; a Muslim party or a women’s party would not be registered.
Parties do little to support their elected members or form policy.
Two scholars (Wanyama and Elklit) observe that parties in Kenya are not “institutionalised”.
Institutionalised parties are “founded on the basis of recognisable principles that underlie their ideologies, policies, and membership. [They have]… elaborate rules and regulations to enable them to recruit members and to carry out the functions and obligations required to reach out to the electorate and win elections.”
But Kenyan parties revolve around personalities, not policies. They often do not have any real membership. Even if they notionally have memberships and even memberships cards, “this process has been abused by contestants for leadership positions buying the cards, or even printing their own, and then dishing out to any individual to turn up and vote for them during party elections. … Virtually all parties have now shed any pretence of registering members, claiming that people from the ethnic group and region from which the leader comes are members of the party.”
Internal election of candidates is non-existent usually, or is not restricted to the “members” — anyone can participate.
Poor organisation and lack of formal membership have led to chaos and indeed violence during primaries. Parties are not accountable to their memberships, for true party membership does not exist. But a party without real members is nonsense. From the perspective of Kenyan political leaders, party members have only one function: To vote for them. The last thing those leaders want is active, informed and articulate members having an impact on who is nominated and what the leaders do if they get into power.
There is a deeper underlying reality, and it lies in the question, why are people so desperate that they will manipulate people, mainly on an ethnic basis and to the extent of violence, or buy their way into office (how degrading for the candidates rather than the voters!) to get into office?
The answer must lie in the rewards that the office offers. Some of it is illicit — the fruits of corruption. But other benefits are legitimate — or at least legal: Salaries higher than most people will ever earn, sitting allowances, per diems, benchmarking trips.
Manipulating ethnicity is the easy way to attain these fruits. Political parties are convenient mechanisms to mobilise the people — if only to vote. Policies and principles, ideas and ideologies are quite unnecessary.
The Registrar of Political Parties was intended to implement the Constitution. To read its website you would imagine that it is knowledgeable about and committed to its role. It has been a disappointment, partly because it has always had an acting head. Could this be because the government does not want an active Registrar?
The Building Bridges Initiative has fallen victim to the same beliefs as motivated the Constitution drafters: That somehow, one could legislate real political parties, with programmes, memberships and rules, into existence.
Their report proposes that people contesting via party lists must undergo “transparent public participation”. And “All political parties should be compelled to reflect the Face of Kenya in ethnic, religious, regional, and gender terms”. The Registrar of Political Parties must be tougher — and should not be merely an acting Registrar. As with so many BBI recommendations, this is essentially saying “Let’s do what the Constitution and law already require.”
Parties have been a constant disappointment to anyone believing in democracy — now more than ever, when the two main party entities, Jubilee and NASA, have collapsed.
Our salvation has lain far more with civil society. Yet that sector could also do much more to create awareness about the crucial role of elections as a device to achieve the people’s aspirations.
Yet parties in the real sense of that word are essential to democracy.