Exactly twenty years ago in December 1991, Kenya became a multi-party democracy. Before then, we were a one-party State with KANU the ruling party calling all the political shots. Records from The registrar of Political Parties show that Kenya has 83 registered political parties which is a sharp contrast from Tanzania’s 22 parties, Uganda’s 26, and Rwanda’s 11, although RPF, the ruling party, is the predominant player. However, does Kenya’s higher quantity of parties translate to a better quality of life for her citizens?
Although many of the parties in Kenya have manifestos, their defining ideologies are anyone’s guess. We do not know for instance, which party has seized the niche of women empowerment and how it defines women empowerment. We also do not know which party has staked its very existence on youth empowerment. Indeed, it is almost impossible to pinpoint which parties are left-wing, centrist, or right-wing. What we do know is that every election cycle, new parties are formed to act as special political purpose vehicles of presidential candidates. In subsequent elections, some of these parties are then abandoned for newer outfits. It’s no wonder that although millions of Kenyans joined or merely found themselves as members of political parties, very few of them were driven by ideological reasons to join these parties.
In the US, the ideological divide between the Democrats and Republicans is as clear as night and day. Republicans are pro-life while Democrats are pro-choice. Simply put, this means that Democrats support abortion while Republicans do not. Such a clear ideological and substantive divide doesn’t exist in Kenyan parties. They are largely differentiated by their respective presidential candidates.
I fully agree with the sentiments of Nyeri Catholic Archbishop Anthony Muheria when he termed the tragedy as ‘needless and incomprehensible.’ Indeed, all Kitui residents know that seasonal rivers flood during heavy rains. When this happens, numerous bridges are overrun. This leads to loss of life, albeit not at the Enziu River scale. The National and County Governments also know this. Unlike residents who cannot build bridges with their bare hands, the two Governments have the capability of building strong, modern bridges.
How can we build symbolic, reconciliatory bridges if we can’t even build actual concrete bridges for the millions of Kenyans in the lower eastern region? Is building a bridge too expensive for the Government to afford? No. The Infrastructure Principal Secretary Paul Maringa confirmed recently that the Government will construct a proper Shs30-million bridge across Enziu River. Why wasn’t this done earlier, not just across this river but many others that also don’t have proper bridges across them? This question cannot be wished away.
If our democracy is to mature and serve the needs of Kenyans, there is a need for a new awakening of political parties. Based on the apathy of Kenyans in joining political parties, it is fair to say that the relationship between democracy and political parties is strained at best and completely broken at worst.
This troubled relationship between political parties and democracy is not unique to Kenya. In the US, the two-party system seems to create more stalemates than breakthroughs. As a result, two-thirds of Americans now think that America needs a third party. In Israel, the parties are so splintered and polarized that there have been four elections in two years. In France, people became so disillusioned with the two major political parties that Emmanuel Macron, Party Leader of the newly formed La République En Marche! Party won the Presidency.
Against this backdrop, Kenya’s political parties must undertake intense self-evaluation. More importantly, Kenyans must hold these parties accountable. Interestingly, smaller parties can lead the way. They can educate the masses on their ideologies and front candidates who advocate and live these ideologies. If they do so, the electorate will have clear choices between principled leaders and those who will say anything to get elected. If even a fraction of these principled leaders makes it to parliament, the character of parliament will begin to change. In this regard, political parties have a critical role to play in Kenya’s democratic journey.
The birth of multi-partyism twenty years ago was supposed to drastically expand representation. With multiple political parties competing for limited elective positions, the hope was that there would be greater representation and greater inclusion. But that hasn’t happened. For instance, smallholder farmers are in worse off positions than before as are coffee farmers and tea farmers. These farmers didn’t find better representation from political parties just like the Boda Bods sector with its millions of stakeholders.
If political parties want to enjoy more widespread support from Kenyans, they must ensure much better representation of Kenyans in the political process.
In addition to enhancing better representation, political parties must also hold the three levels of Government accountable. They should do so on behalf of their membership. In this regard, political parties should not complain about the ills afflicting our society. They should instead employ political tools to tackle those ills. Think green, act green.