Kenyan Presidential Campaign Forays into the Diaspora are Unsubstantive and Uninspiring
What informs the substance of presidential candidates' messages to and communication with the Kenyan Diaspora? This question is as much about issue development in the run up to Kenya’s upcoming presidential elections as it is about the Diaspora voter expectations and their perceptions. It is also, importantly, about the nuances of choice-making in a, presumably, ultra-ethnic democratic arena. How does this play out in the Kenya Diaspora presidential campaigns context? What issue development processes form the basis of campaign strategies targeting the Diaspora? In reality, the over-arching question is whether, in the history of Kenya’s democratic experience, the campaign and vote-getting processes have been negotiated and determined on the basis of constituent issue-driven politics. If not, has this been the result of a lack of strong self-advocacy on the part of the voters or the perception among presidential candidates that minimalism meets the threshold for winning elections?
Placing issues before the electorate is one of the main functions of electoral campaigns. Both the presidential candidates and the voters use this opportunity to present their priority issues, one to the other. The electorate weighs and assesses the candidates’ visions while the candidates develop campaign positions using voters’ issues as well as salient national challenges. Campaigns provide the arena for candidates to discuss their views on specific issues. These views constitute their leadership agenda and become the central plank of their candidature i.e. what, in their view, the elections are about. Campaign pledges also resonate beyond the campaign stump speeches to the electorate as these agenda become a guide for policy making when the candidate gets elected. Campaign ideas and positions are important because they rank order and prioritize our issues and become the platform on which the candidate wins our votes. Candidates win votes when they emphasize issues they perceive as important for respective voter groups.
The constitutional provision allowing the Diaspora participation in elections has aroused perhaps the most politically vociferous constituency in Kenya’s democratic evolution. Not only are Diaspora Kenyans rabidly engaged in the nation’s politics, their level of participation in the political discourse, unmatched anywhere in the world, is loudly orchestrated by their access to online communication channels. This makes the Kenyan Diaspora a far more lethal campaign constituency than might be imagined on the local Kenyan political scene. Diaspora Kenyans not only maintain robust online forums, they also critique current political developments in Kenya in real time. The internet has emboldened Kenyans living in foreign countries by making communication easier and eliminating distance in all spheres of life. As a result, they have become real players and opinion shapers on Kenya’s political developments.
Kenyans in the Diaspora are, notionally, transnational citizens. On the one hand, they retain an essential Kenyan identity, and, on the hand, they have developed a sharp issue consciousness influenced by their exposure to liberal western democratic practice. This hybridity, one might argue, makes the Diaspora Kenyan complex and not easily malleable. Add to that complexity, contrary to expectation and in spite of this dual political consciousness, Diaspora Kenyans remain, in many ways, closeted in ethnic silos. Their opinions and issue positions pander toward ethno-nationalistic persuasions. Predictably, this has contributed to the single most significant challenge for candidates, that is, the Kenya Diaspora does not have an aggregated, well developed and clearly articulated campaign agenda. Campaign issues evolve out of a collective consciousness, a lived experience, a common set of values and ideals that galvanize a group of people. Understandably, candidates cannot be expected to tailor their plans for the Diaspora against unknowns. Yet Diaspora issues are knowable. They can be constructed into policy agenda and prioritized.
Every electoral demographic has issues that political campaigns should address. The Diaspora, like all other electoral voter constituencies, has and can formulate these issues into policy agenda. The Diaspora’s issues crystallize out of common values and expectations influenced by their sojourn in foreign lands, transnational perceptions about Kenya’s evolving democracy, and concerns about their re-insertion into the nation’s social and political tapestry. In everyday experience, Diaspora Kenyans are not a homogenous lot. They are not a generic category that easily fits broad brush generalizations. Their issues are therefore yet to become crystal clear. They are technocrats, skilled workers and experienced business managers, professionals and high-value specialists in medical and other scientific fields. They are students and shop-floor workers. They are families. As economic refugees, they have unquenchable Kenya-bound investment appetites. They live a socially constructed identity, as described by Benedict Anderson, “an imagined community”. Yet, bottom-line, they love Kenya.
Kenya’s presidential candidates will, for the first time, face the challenge of mounting effective vote getting campaigns targeting the country’s Diaspora populations. This prospect is fraught with numerous complexities that include establishing strong campaign networks, vote-getting -strategies, fund-raising efforts and media outreach, among others. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the three-million strong eligible electors make the Diaspora a decisive constituency. Before the constitutional provisions allowing Diaspora Kenyans to vote in national elections, paying token attention to the Diaspora has been characteristic fare among presidential aspirants. The playbook has been predictable, and familiar, that is, candidates attend Diaspora town hall meetings; make lofty and rambling but largely unsubstantive statements (often about dual citizenship, remittances and how important the Diaspora is to Kenya); and, then retreat to a dinner with a select few, the surrogates, to the tête-à-tête. Whether the candidates consider the Diaspora a source of campaign resources or a strong offshore influence on the Kenyan voter is not borne out by the substance of these events. Up to now, presidential candidates get away with this tokenism, sending emissaries to meet and placate Kenyans in North American cities and elsewhere but also to mobilize financial support. This script is uninspiring. And for good reasons too.
Presidential candidates will have to contend with a much more nuanced and complex political campaign landscape in the Diaspora than has been the case in the past. While contacting cronies or ethnic friends in foreign cities has remained common practice for politicians making forays into the Diaspora, such provincialism will be counter-productive in future campaigns. Professionalism, that is, developing and following demonstrably above board campaign strategies, eschewing ethnic preferences and measuring up to a high credibility bar, will give the prospective presidential candidate greater mileage. Candidates will lose credibility by failing to thoroughly screen their Diaspora contacts for roles in their campaign efforts. Sad to say, choosing political wannabes with narrow personal motivations creates the risk of, unwittingly, alienating rather than endearing the candidates to the people. Lack of stringency and sensitivity in identifying jet set campaign outfits in the Diaspora is a painful price to pay for failure to secure the Diaspora vote and support.
The Diaspora Kenyan is politically socialized in a sophisticated democratic eco-system through exposure to western democratic practice. Their political persuasions and sensitivities are possibly hard to place in a transnational electoral engagement context. Are Diaspora Kenyans single or multiple issue voters? Are they attuned to ethno-national polarities that characterize Kenya’s political culture? Will they vote candidates based on perceptions of collective ethnic predestination or can they be mobilized to become part of the “break-with-the-past” movement? Are they likely to pursue a yet-to-be-articulated Diaspora agenda in this electoral cycle or might they be a dispassionate economic and social justice constituency? Such questions should exercise the minds of our presidential candidates. As stakeholders, the Diaspora Kenyans might expect, even bargain for, certain concessions such as representation, policy accommodations, a share in the nation’s key appointments and a well-crystallized pledge reflecting what their vote means for their interests. Candidates should not be surprised to be called upon to dedicate a presidential debate to Diaspora issues. A sophisticated candidate should welcome such an opportunity!
Kenyans in the Diaspora have many reasons to expect a lot more that token attention to their needs. They are, undoubtedly, a major source of the foreign capital flowing into the national economy through their financial remittances. These remittances, in aggregate, easily match official and private foreign direct financial flows into the Kenyan economy. Presidential candidates would be well advised to address the important question about why Kenya stands behind other developing countries on the issue of well-developed progressive Diaspora friendly policies. Other nations, including many whose economies do not compare favorably to Kenya’s economic development record, boast of enviable measures taken to channel their Diasporas’ financial muscle, human resource capacities, skills, expertise and collective intellectual capital towards national development. Some have cabinet level policy representation for Diaspora affairs in the form of full ministries; others have Diaspora quotas in key national appointments, while some, like India, have institutionalized the use of their Diaspora nationals to act as look-out posts in the international development arena. As candidates face Diaspora voters, they will certainly need to shore up their campaign planning to be on target in addressing such issues.
Unlike the domestic political scene, the Diaspora does not have the benefit of party hierarchies, party headquarters or organizational structures. There are no sitting constituency representatives and no councillors. There are no aspiring candidates for (Diaspora) constituency seats and no feuding formations across the political divide of the kind found in many parts of the country. Instead, here, there are emergent groupings and formations angling and positioning for roles in the electoral competition. Presidential candidates are implicated in the subsurface fissures and strife simmering between groups living in many western cities. Most of these are local personality and group struggles for prominent roles in respective parties’ political order and, in particular, in the management of presidential candidates’ affairs in the Diaspora.
It is to be admitted that there are few, if any, issue based political agenda that Diaspora groups rally around and that might influence their political affiliation. This complicates strategic options for presidential candidates. Hence, absent a common articulation of issues through a credible Diaspora platform, candidates may have the choice to determine campaign issues and give prominence to political agenda that may provide traction with the Diaspora electorate. In this scenario, the Diaspora will be the losers. This should not be. In vote getting, it is a “buyers’ market”. The Diaspora needs to shore up its issues through advocacy and negotiation. For example, under the new constitution, the Diaspora is entitled, like all other under-represented groups, to a quota of national resources, a voice in policy-making, positions in national institutions and in general, a place at the table. As required by law, political parties should offer nomination slots to under-represented groups, the Diaspora included. Candidates who will not present a credible, clearly articulated value proposition for the Diaspora should to expect to secure their vote, direct or indirect. Going forward, the Diaspora would be well placed to profile its issue positions in a consensual but decisive manner. From clearly articulated positions on issues and a parametric approach to choice-making, it would then become possible to develop and announce issue position endorsements. Candidates would then be constrained to pay attention to Diaspora voices and make their campaign visits mutually worthwhile.
There is no denying that there still exist ethnic constituencies among Diaspora Kenyans. These unavoidable residual historical stains will continue to beleaguer Kenya’s political culture even under the new constitutional dispensation. Inevitably, these trends muddy the political orientation of this Diaspora constituency whose democratic consciousness has, in many respects, undergone “plastic surgery”. Needless to say, these enclaves and their political behaviors, still find resonance with candidates that prefer ethnic comfort zones. It is hard to advise candidates whose backyard constituencies are, mainly, ethnic. It is, however, in their interest to understand that fighting the image of a presidential candidate engaged in polarizing the country along ethnic lines and extending this stratagem through deliberate ethnic redistricting of the Diaspora will be just as challenging as winning the presidency. On their part, the Diaspora must appreciate that political relationships, particularly in the context of election campaigns, are not platonic love affairs. They are spaces for substantive negotiations.
By William Yimbo.
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Let's see how all the ODM2 & RU business goes down..Certainly non of this fellow would pay any attention to the diaspora.....
Four weeks to go....