Winning lost elections: Why performance ‘doesn’t matter’

The art of tribal salesmanship: Despite overseeing a regime of economic plundering and mismanagement, perhaps the worst since independence, another well-timed alliance is all Uhuru needs in 2017

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Voters who had waited in line for many hours queue at sunset to vote at a polling station in Githurai, north of Nairobi, in Kenya, Monday, March 4, 2013. Five years after more than 1,000 people were killed in election-related violence, Kenyans went to the polls on Monday to cast votes in a nationwide election seen as the country's most important - and complicated - in its 50-year history. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
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In Africa, an incumbent never loses.
This is a saying whose applicability in Kenya, by whatever measurement or observation, is difficult to deny. The reason, argues Nic Cheeseman, in the Afrobarometer Working Paper No. 83 “Ethnicity as a political cleavage” (2009), is the presence of weak political institutions, coupled by amalgamation of power, which give advantage to the incumbent.

Despite perceptions of first-term (African) presidents as reformers – ones who will undo the wrongs of the previous regime and build on what little good was made, this notion is disproved soon enough when the trappings of power become too alluring to let go, and any real or perceived threat to this benefit attracts swift and heavy-handed reaction. Few leaders, if ever, deviate from the tradition of consolidating power, intimidation, cracking down on dissenting voices and vote buying.

In his preelection manifesto, President Uhuru Kenyatta promised to, among others, reintroduce ethics in governance, create jobs, secure the country, from both internal and external threat, pursue food security (in a nutshell seek the entrenchment of social rights), and reinvigorate the private sector as part of his plan to spur economic growth. Most believed him because he offered a better alternative to his competition, and because he was rich – with no motivation to raid public coffers, he would deal a blow to graft and get the country on track to being a model state.

At first he seemed to be doing okay – his efforts to demystify the presidency worked like a charm, even though some did not approve, he seemed to give the media space to watchdog government, created a lean cabinet, made up largely of technocrats, and embarked on massive infrastructural projects that promised much-anticipated economic turnaround. But most of it turned out to be an experiment as he got into the element of State power. In a phrase, power happened.

Soon, a phase of mutilating the Constitution, which continues to date, to consolidate devolved power and functions and assert supremacy over a clueless Opposition, began. There have been deliberate, concerted efforts to usurp the powers of constitutional commissions, such as the National Police Service and Land Commissions as the ruling coalition works to concentrate power in the presidency. Last month, the third attempt to utterly subjugate media seems to have been successful as MPs unanimously voted to muzzle the power of the Fourth Estate to expose ills in the legislature.

Kenyans, rightly outraged, expressed their anger in various platforms, including on social media and through protests. Expectedly, the Opposition has dug in and taken advantage of the prevailing circumstances to paint Kenya as a failed state under President Kenyatta, to try and wrest away support from the ruling coalition and portray itself as an alternative government in waiting. It is apparent that they are barely fooling anyone.

Barring any disillusionment from once-optimistic Kenyans and the load of criticism directed his way, President Kenyatta today promises to proceed with nation-building despite the setbacks, rise above his condemnation, in spite of the roadblocks – some which he unreasonably attributes to the Opposition – and win a second term, to the chagrin of those who hope he does not.

But it should be apparent, even to him, that this is no longer about whether or not some wish and pray for his defeat. The country is at a bad place, politically, socially and economically. Politically because Kenyans are more alienated than ever because of the ICC process which has divided people into those who stand with the Deputy President and those who do not; socially because the threat of terrorism continues to grow by the day – an incompetent and corrupt police service does not inspire the thought of a secure Kenya; economically because those in charge of our fiscal health are flushing it down the toilet, taxpayers’ money is stolen with abandon, and government admits we are in a crunch.

Naturally, this state of affairs means that Kenyans ought to be seriously rethinking their choice for president, and considering options that can reverse the situation and improve it. The one tool that the citizenry has got to exercise this right is the ballot. In many well-balanced societies, even one where democracy is rare, if things continue as they are, President Kenyatta should forget about re-election.

Are Kenyans fed-up enough to want to a change of leadership?
Unfortunately not, experts predict; in 2017, Uhuru could easily, almost too easily, take the turn back to State House after voters cast their ballots in the next election. How? Everything Uhuru has done up to this point, including his unwillingness to end corruption and sitting on the fence as allies line their pockets with easy, ill-gotten public money, turning his back as political and economic mismanagement threatens to break the country, is geared towards securing him a second term.

How again, you ask? In Kenya, Professor Karuti Kanyinga explains, campaigns typically start after presidential election results are announced, and this has been a trend with successive government – from President Moi’s time in the early 1990s. All political choices and governance decisions are weighed to ensure a second term can be won.

“The stakes in Kenya’s political elections are too high, and this is attributable to the electoral system we use. The system of first-past-the-post (FPTP) requires that for one to win, one has to look for votes in ethnic alliances to attain the constitutional requirement of 25 per cent in half of the counties, and 50 per cent plus one. This does not provide politicians with the opportunity to think about public good; they have to win at all costs. The political alliances formed need not be national; they just have to allow the stakeholders to win,” the don, a researcher with the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Nairobi, says.

By definition, this means that our electoral system is one that promotes ethnicity, because it tolerates and facilitates the coming together of friendships forged for political convenience, and alliances solely to mobilise voting blocs. It is for this reason that candidates who seek votes on the basis of policy issues – which is what the country badly needs – rarely win. In situations where there is proportional representation (in terms of voting numbers among blocs, such as tribe, ideology and social class), consider policy proposal as opposed to ethnic interests.

This means that a win for Uhuru in the next election will not depend on how much Uhuru has been able to do for the country, but how many ethnic allies he is able to bring into his fold – and what he can promise them. Where in the past the constitution would have allowed him to make huge promises to such allies, he is limited by the new law on what he can promise, and his basket of goodies will be limited to few positions such as DP, leader of majority and Speakers of the Houses.

“The performance of the president is important, and should be the primary yardstick in judging a leader’s success; unfortunately, it not a major determinant during elections, because we use ethnic lenses to measure performance. It is this that is largely to blame for the polarisation we are witnessing,” Professor Kanyinga points out. “There are many issues that the current government has been unable or unwilling to deal with, and which it won’t tackle before the next election. When the time comes, performance will link with many other factors to determine if he returns.”

Speaking to the question of development, there are a number of projects done by the national government but which, owing to their nature, people attribute to county governments. Examples of these are economic stimulus projects for which, because county governments are involved in their setting-up and running, they are given credit for.
Today, corruption is at levels never witnessed before, not even during Moi’s time – this is debatable in the sense that perhaps it did, but media was not open/free enough to highlight this. Insiders at the Treasury say the Integrated Financial Management and Information System (IFMIS) is designed to let those with the highest clearance access to billions of taxpayer money; the few instances highlighted in media are those in which officers have been brave enough to blow the whistle. Professor Kanyinga explains:

“Graft has permeated all sectors, including private sector, in a way that was not possible in the past, and touches on every sector of the economy. In some areas, including in tax collection, it is so normalised that people no longer think about it as corruption. This is so because the public sector is the single most important source of development funds.
“Since the economy has shown signs of sustained growth for about three years now, government has embarked on massive infrastructure projects to both augment this growth, and encourage more investment, providing more avenues and incentive for people to steal. Sadly, this is the case as well in county governments, hence the mantra ‘devolved corruption’. Unfortunately, too, players in this graft scheme are to be found in both government and opposition, such that the latter does not have the moral grounds to berate the former about mismanagement or maladministration.”

The governance issues that now weigh down on Jubilee, including insecurity, are enough to make someone lose and election after the first term, but we are a country that votes on ethnicity, such that if Uhuru does not team up with Ruto, even as it is conceded that it is too early to tell whether this will be the case, he is damned. If he does, he is assured of a win, particularly because the Opposition offers no viable or convincing alternative.

Again, the word ‘win’ in Kenyan presidential elections is not used in the conventional way; they are doctored victories because voter numbers are never clear .

“First term presidencies are complicated. It shouldn’t come out as strange if voters endorsed Uhuru for a second term. If the Opposition were formidable enough and positioned itself as an alternative government, there would be hope for a ballot revolution. One way to judge Cord, which brands itself as a movement for good governance, is to look at the character of Cord governors and legislators (senators, MPs, MCAs): are they better developed? No. Are their legislators better disciplined? Hardly. Nothing sets them apart from Jubilee. The story of the two coalitions is that of the pot and the kettle.”

Dr Adams Oloo, a political scientist at the University of Nairobi is a little more guarded on the kind of political (re)alignment likely to be witnessed. While he does not dismiss the likelihood that there could be a falling out in the ruling coalition, he is of the opinion that Uhuru might need to extend his alliance outside Rift Valley to secure a convincing win, and that any rebellion by Deputy President William Ruto’s URP will be aimed at negotiating new covenants.

According to Dr Oloo, understanding Kenya’s voting patterns and history is not straightforward; it is impossible to tell what kinds of groupings are likely to be created. He argues that election deals in Kenya are cut in the last few months to elections, as is likely to happen if a section of URP refuses to join the Jubilee Alliance Party bandwagon. He further observes how Ruto’s case at the ICC concludes will have a bearing on the next election.

“One thing we can take home is that while Uhuru is Kenyatta is assured to retain the core of his Central Kenya electorate bulk – despite perceived rebellion by Meru Governor Peter Munya and Narc-Kenya leader Martha Karua – Ruto will not have the same sway that he had in 2013. This is what the President might want to work on, by reaching out to other voting blocks. In any case, the reason the so-called prayer rallies for his Deputy were started – after URP legislators began to grumble that Uhuru had abandoned Ruto – was to try and maintain their grip. To retain power, Uhuru needs the DP.

Does he think Cord poses a real threat to Jubilee? He concurs with Professor Kanyinga.
“Not really; not in its current form. In any other circumstance, what is happening in Kenya is enough to fashion the Opposition as a government-in-waiting. Cord does not convince most that it can do better than Jubilee. A lot of work needs to be put in to change this perception. Again, the Opposition has not declared a candidate. In a way, this works for them for two reasons: one, it allows them to re energise; two, if Wetang’ula and Kalonzo announced they will support Raila for president, they would lose relevance with the electorate. On the flip side, this casts Cord as disjointed – the average voter does not understand or care about these dynamics.”

Dr Oloo, however, foresees a challenge for Uhuru. The Kalenjin “were in power” for 24 years, and retired President Daniel Moi spoilt them in a way that jubilee cannot. They know what power entails. If the prize is a goat and they get the intestines and legs, they know how much TNA has been left with. This is why Kuresoi MP Zakayo Cheruiyot and Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto, who have been in government before, are the loudest critics of Jubilee. There have been grumblings from URP for some time now, and these two know that either Ruto has received more and is unwilling to share, or that he is getting a raw deal.

“The power sharing formula ratio, at least on paper, was 50-50. The question Uhuru must answer is: did he meet his end of the bargain? Uhuru extricated himself out of the ICC case; did Ruto? Even on corruption, URP has been making noise that its members have borne the brunt of the fight, and this cannot augur well for the President – at least in the eyes of his coalition partners.”

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