The Irony of Democracy in Kenya’s Political Parties

Published on 29th May 2012

Kenya Presidential candidates                             Photo courtesy

Looking at the happenings in political parties, one would be mistaken to believe Kenya has just usshered in multiparty politics. All major political parties appear to be having a lot of internal wrangles to settle.

Senior politicians are busy shifting political parties. It is a pretty sad moment for democracy in Kenya. It is absolutely a negation of the importance of political parties in a democracy.

It is worth noting that it is now a decade since a multiparty system of political governance was established in Kenya. This came about after a long, hard and protracted struggle during which democracy advocates and heroes were arrested, tortured, imprisoned, detained without trial and forced into exile. Many died in police custody, torture chambers and prisons during mass demonstrations and actions demanding the end of the Kenya African National Union’s (KANU) one party dictatorship that was notorious for the violation of citizens’ and human rights.

There are problems in ODM, KANU and URP among others.  In any case, Kenya’s growing democracy faces many challenges that include corruption, poverty and underdevelopment. Further, Kenya is one of the most unequal societies in the world and with the gap between the few rich and the poor majority expanding.

Political parties are necessary for the process of institutionalizing and sustaining democracy. In fact, developing political parties is one of the basic challenges facing Kenya’s multiparty democracy. while many political parties in Kenya are seeking full compliance and registration in line with the Political Parties Act, they are more conglomerates of individuals seeking presidential or parliamentary positions than political parties.

There is a need, therefore, for members of political parties in Kenya, starting from the leadership, to  understand the meaning of a party. Many of the problems within political parties seem to arise because individuals who form them have not sat down to discuss and come to a consensus on the meaning of a party in general and their individual parties in particular.

To be a party,  people must sit down and tell one another why they are a party. A party is at the very least a group of people who are united by a common ideology, vision,  discipline, moral values and common tactics and strategies for their vision. The ideology of the party is summarised in the party manifesto while the party discipline and system of governance is defined in the constitution. The code of conduct summarises the moral values that help to bind party members together in their common struggle to change society for the better and in line with their philosophy as a party.

A political party cannot be a political party without a manifesto. It will remain a party without its own stand and direction, a party that reacts to events initiated by others without being able to set its own agenda. Yet, many registered political parties in Kenya remain without manifestos. Some party manifestos are not really manifestos because they were written by a few individuals – and sometimes even foreigners or donors. The manifestos are never studied, discussed, comprehended and imbued by the vast majority of the members, including the majority of the leadership.

The basic elements that define political parties are lacking in Kenyan political parties that tend to be created, dominated and sustained by powerful personalities rather than informed and convinced members. The parties become alive only when national elections are announced. Although the leadership of all political parties is composed of members from the diverse ethnic groups of the country, they are still distinguished not by ideologies but by personalities who lead them and their ethnic base.

Hitherto, political parties in Kenya hardly distinguish between their members and their voters, between the party and the masses who identify with it, between holders of party cards and actual members of the party.

Lack of appreciation of the meaning of the party and commitment to the party produces lack of party spirit among political parties in the country. This has caused despondency, inertia, anarchy, opportunism and retrogressive tendencies identified with the political parties that include tribalism and even nepotism.

Egoism, especially among the leaders, is one of the greatest problems that hinder the progress of political parties in the country. Party leaders or members address meetings, hold press conferences and generally do things for self-aggrandizement rather than for promoting their parties.

Many of the leaders of political parties are insecure in their relationship with one another because they are motivated by intrigues, narrow and parochial interests. They feel that if other people in the party receive public esteem, then their future party and public positions will be undermined. They thus resort to tribal allegiances, undermine and isolate others while creating sycophants and the culture of sycophancy.

Many times, party leaders readily contribute thousands or even hundreds of thousands of shillings at harambees (popular fundraisings) where people can notice them doing so. But they hardly donate anything to help run their party secretariats that more often than not are crippled by lack of funds. This is because to them the party is nothing other than a vehicle for pursuing the road to a parliamentary seat or the presidency.

In fact, many leaders of political parties in Kenya would have nothing to do with their parties if they could not use them for personal gain. That is why political leaders, parliamentarians included, keep on changing parties. With lack of ideological beliefs, opportunism is the order of the day among the political class in Kenya.

With lack of principled and dependable leadership, anarchy is part and parcel of the life of political parties in the country. In turn, it is one of the problems that hinder the growth of the political parties. Many cases are reported where members refuse to respect or recognize their leaders or party organs, particularly when these are against their tribal chiefs or the personalities they follow.

At other times, members of the party choose the press to abuse or communicate with their party organs or leadership. In-fighting, intrigues, chaos at party meetings, opportunism and betrayal are all manifestations of anarchy that are reported every day.

Anarchy is encouraged by the situation where the party is inactive, alienated from its members, the masses and reality on the ground as Kenyan political parties tend to be. Lack of comprehensive policies, effective leadership, internal democracy and a forum that can be utilized by members to convey their views or criticisms to higher party organs breeds anarchy. Under such circumstances, individual members try to take individual initiatives unknown to the party organs albeit, many times, with good intentions of building up the party.

In short, for further development of democracy in the country, real political parties based on defined ideologies and that expound internal democracy are as necessary as the new constitution.

Furthermore, the current political parties will transform themselves into real political parties if they address, among others, the problems of personality cult, ethnic and regional interests and be based on ideologies. Yet amidst all this democracy is becoming a culture. Kenyans have also realized that they have to be vigilant and struggle to defend their democratic gains while striving for a better society.

By Kasembeli Albert
The author is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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