Kenya Presidential Elections Debates: Reflections from the Diaspora
The announcement that media organizations in Kenya have planned a series of presidential elections debate is refreshing news and a major ground-breaking step toward modernizing our democracy. Will Kenya’s next president be elected on an issue-driven rather than an ethnicity based platform? This is the question that the debates in the run up to the 2013 presidential will, in part, amplify. It is a voter education initiative that should meet the electorate’s expectations though this will depend on the quality of the planning. Debates, campaign advertising, and other forms of political communication extend the breadth of democratic participation. Political communication significantly impacts the choices as well as the course the nation takes under the next president. Without a doubt, the planned debates underscore Kenya’s coming of age under a new constitution.
Political communication is the exchange currency that shapes the interaction between politicians, political institutions and the public. Politicians and political parties formulate their messaging with a view to convincing the electorate to elect them. The interactive process, involving transmission of information among politicians, the media and the public, broadens political discourse. The process should, ideally, operate multi-directionally between political actors, governing institutions and citizens, and include the electorate’s opinion on issues. Under ideal political conditions, this process fosters democracy by allowing constructive public discourse and the unskewed exchange of information leading to good choice making.
Campaign rallies, mass-mediated policy conversations, debates and party orchestrated activities allow candidates to present their leadership plans to the electorate. The track record on this process, in Kenya’s case, is convoluted. For example, political marketing by parties remain either low-ball in quality or altogether haphazard and unreliable. Party activities are uncoordinated and confusing e.g. our process lacks audience-relevant messages and undistracted focus on specific issue agendas that is best delivered by a speaker at events such as town hall meetings. Contrarily, party public communication opportunities are often poorly utilized. Rallies are front-loaded with distracting bravado and numerous speakers making any such events charades and road shows with little chance for any message beyond run-of-the-mill hubris and untoward crassness. Party debates have been, so far, non-existent and policy conversations not nearly adequately illuminating.
An electorate smarting from flawed elections, volcanic ethnic mistrust, and a fragile economy deserves a non-convoluted electoral atmosphere allowing greater clarity on the real issues, enabling Kenyans to weigh them objectively and choose between clear rational options. Issues determine the tenor of electoral competition. Political communication helps clarify competitors’ positions and supports choice-making. They enable the electorate to, incisively, evaluate presidential candidates’ leadership resumes. Citizens can only reliably visualize leadership priorities and performance during a presidential term from clear campaign pledges and party positions. Such is hardly ever the case for Kenyans. They are preconditioned to perennially choose between competing pitches of ethno-social dramatizations of national politics.
It is tempting to draw comparisons between the geographies of electoral campaign issues in the US and the Kenyan presidential elections in spite of the wide differences. Both nations’ upcoming elections are scheduled six months apart, November 6, 2012 for USA and March 2013 for Kenya. USA’s democracy is several hundred years old; Kenya is only turning fifty around the March 2013 elections. The US has a mature federal system of government that gives broad autonomy to the states while Kenya is, for the first time, moving towards a devolved county based system with, initially, more narrowly circumscribed powers for the counties. There is, admittedly, a steep learning curve for Kenya, but, there is no time like now to begin.
The US presidential election is a race between the incumbent, President Barack Obama for the Democrats, against Republican candidate Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts. The electoral campaign calendar included five-month nationwide primaries and caucuses culminating in party conventions. Each party, as is the practice in the US, has had a clear and well developed division of labor in coordinating plans and orchestrating campaign activities.
The road map is not so well-charted with respect to Kenya’s electoral process. Neither the political parties nor presidential candidates have provided the electorate with such clear forward plans, none of the repertoire of party campaign activities nor disseminated well articulated issue maps. Plans for party primaries are tentative and half-hearted. Party nominations processes do not include any of the spectacular conventions that endorse candidates and raise the curtains to the competition. Kenya can be pardoned for this comparatively abysmal state of its electoral culture. The US will be holding its 57th presidential elections while Kenya will be doing its 11th.
In Kenya’s case, there is a dearth of accountability to the electorate on the part of parties’ leadership and candidates. Kenya’s parties, enjoying unchallenged latitude with regard to running party policies and providing leadership, have hardly delivered on this responsibility. Never mind that the conventional wisdom is that parties are the agents of grassroots mobilization and should take a consultative leadership approach. In practice, party secretariats and presidential candidates decide whether parties will hold elections. Party manifestos, a body of binding ideas, values and statements of purpose about a desirable future, appear to be simply booklets. Party leaders have the discretion to truncate rules of democratic consultation. The current spate of political merchandizing shows the fluidity of party policies on defections, on enacting and flaunting alliances. These developments, defections, alliance forming and such, water down the integrity of party values, philosophies, principles and ideologies.
The US is approaching its 57th elections with a profound sense of expectation because of the issues facing the nation. The country’s economy has tended towards worrisome decline in the last decade, with rising public debt, concerns about lack of viable economic turnaround solutions and apprehension about leadership commitment to such solutions. These and other issues like national security and trade will be important to the electorate as they approach the November polls. They have been clearly articulated and well debated by all. The media writes consistently about the electoral agenda as pollsters, policy and academic institutions conduct and release numerous surveys deconstructing salient issues and positions.
As a result, the majority of citizens know the parties’ fundamental ideological orientations, the alternative policy options associated with them including the common sense positions about those issues. For example, they know that for Republicans, the basis of policy solutions is individual rights and respect for others’ rights, as the tenets for the well-being of the nation. They also know that Democrats base their policy alternatives on the collective welfare of the society, which they consider the most crucial core principle for which they can subordinate individual preferences. Americans know these ideological bases distinguish the parties’ leadership ideas. They are able to sift through the campaign rhetoric to select what, in their opinion, constitute acceptable value propositions within the framework of these ideological value orientations. Political communication is part of the voter education programs that offer citizens the opportunity to participate in agenda-setting, evaluate candidate strengths and shape party positions.
The issue geographies in Kenya’s electoral process remain much more unwieldy. Our issue development system is yet to come of age. Yes, it is possible we can list the real issues, jobs, poverty, economic stewardship, socio-economic safety nets, regional security, education reform, land administration policies etc. The question is whether our public sphere is suitably structured to channel these into properly profiled campaign issues. Unfortunately, the vibrancy of national rhetoric is not and has never been in doubt for its all year around rich pitch. The rhetoric is, however, not helpfully targeted. Our leaders are ever so unremittingly shrill. But, about what? Here, the answers are quite confounding. For them, the issues as we approach the presidential elections in the next few months are, regrettably, about candidates’ backyard constituencies and their numerical strength, polarities between reformers and non-reformers, the right to be on the ballot, and possible alliances to railroad presidential bids.
The Kenyan electorate must be utterly befuddled and petrified. How can they evaluate and make sense of leadership priorities, beyond the elections, amid this hullabaloo? How can they visualize the future under a devolved and re-configured government system when their possible next leaders are mute about these prospects? The electorate exercises, so far, next to no influence on campaign issues. Unsurprisingly, the candidates are neither laying out their visions for a tribeless nation able to transcend this myopia nor any programs to create an economic nation in the place of an ethnic society. None appears seized of the need to present well rounded economic empowerment programs, for redressing distributive justice. None is presenting the much needed transitional compass to anchor the major transformational changes impacting Kenya’s political firmament.
Instead, there is an almost toxic and electrified feel in the air. The drum beats are reminiscent of a season we much prefer to not remember. Hopefully, it will not get progressively more radioactive as the elections date approaches. The electorate has a role to play in shaping the process, a role it should play with much less complacency. Quite obviously, the electorate must do more to assert its role in determining the real issues and requiring candidates to adjust to those priorities. That is what elections are about. When Americans go to the vote, they will be making choices between different value propositions presented by the presidential candidates and political parties. The range of issues might include, generally, budget deficits, economic malaise, unemployment, financial sector governance, international trade, labor and wages, healthcare, national security, the environment, housing etc. Will Kenyans have a similar range of issues and value propositions to make rational choices over?
For Americans, personal traits, religious values, family history and career backgrounds, military service and other attributes of their candidates are interrogated thoroughly. Quite often, individual peccadilloes come into play if people know them. In 2004, Democratic Party presidential candidate Howard Dean lost the primaries in spite of an impressive online election campaign fund-raising effort. The loss was linked to a shrieking gaffe seen largely as an unpresidential display of self-enthusiasm. These issues may seem tangential but they inform the choices Americans make, to a remarkable degree. Kenya’s candidates, in contrast, are not subjected to such in-depth scrutiny. Instead, pedigree, unfettered vociferousness, bandwagon demagoguery and gleefulness appear to be important mileage resources in Kenya’s presidential campaigns.
When Americans choose a president in November, it will be a candidate who, as far as can be determined through the campaign and vote process, approximates as closely as possible to the aspirations and priorities of the people. When Kenyans elect a president in March next year, we shall possibly have at State House, a man or woman who marshaled and garnered the largest ethnic vote rather than the candidate with a plausible take on issues, a compelling vision and a credible plan of action. While Kenya’s pollsters may, gratuitously, encourage a first-past-the-post mentality about elections outcomes, prognosticators ought to decipher what such an outcome portends for leadership during the next five years. What appears likely is that Kenya will have, for its 4th president, a candidate whose election triumph will be based, sadly, on a subterranean ethnic calculus. The electorate and institutions with mechanisms to further democratic practices, such as the media, can lead the charge in creating a climate for political discourse that will deflect this undesirable outcome.
By William Yimbo
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