Kenya’s 2010 Constitution has been the subject of much debate, both at home and on the international scene. It ushered in a number of changes in the governance structure of the country, favoring a presidential over a parliamentary system, styled much in the fashion of the American presidential system. The question as to whether this system is best for Kenya is moot, at this point in time, given that this is a debate that has taken place ad nauseam during the constitutional review exercise; and Kenyans made their preference clearly known when they voted at the constitutional referendum of 2010. That being said, it does not escape notice that this model has not yielded the desired results in countries such as Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Along with the American styled presidential system, and perhaps because of it, our politics too has taken on one particular feature of American politics: the existence of two dominant political parties or coalitions. This duopoly, whereby two political entities share almost all political power between them, mirrors the situation in the US where the Democrats and the Republicans are the only noteworthy political formations. In that country, no third party has ever won a Presidential election or a majority in either House. This is not to suggest that a Presidential system precludes the formation of other political parties. In fact, in the US and other Presidential systems, third parties not only exist, but have also been able to gain some traction and support.
However, due to the nature of plurality electoral systems, two parties usually dominate to the disadvantage of smaller third parties. This begs the question as to whether such a duopoly is a hindrance on the kind of democracy we seek to establish in Kenya. How will we advance a political pluralism as envisaged by our Constitution in Article 38? Furthermore, what are the ramifications of this on an ethnically polarized society, such as ours?
An inherent danger with this phenomenon is the perception that on any given issue, one side is 100% right, and the other, 100% wrong. An unlikely situation. The on-going referendum debate provides a perfect case in point.
CORD, on the one hand, seeks a referendum ostensibly to correct a number of ills facing society. Jubilee, on the other, is opposed to the referendum either because it is an agenda propagated by CORD, or because it would create a distraction from governing the country, or both! The CORD coalition is yet to demonstrate whether a referendum is actually capable of resolving their loosely-defined objectives. Jubilee, for its part, has demonstrated the lengths to which it is prepared to go to scuttle the referendum. Both sides have devised strategies to placate MCAs with a myriad of goodies, given the central role they play in a referendum exercise. Evidently, the ground is being prepared for a political battle of note!
It must be said that debate around the Constitution is no bad thing: on the contrary, it is healthy! At this stage of implementation, it is only through open and considered public debate that we will be able to craft a constitutional order that meets the expectations of Kenyans.
However, neither CORD nor Jubilee appears interested in the substance of the Constitution, nor the constitutional implications of a referendum at this particular point in time. Personally, in the continued absence of any compelling justification, I remain unconvinced of the necessity of a referendum at this point in time for two reasons. Firstly, we are now in the fifth and final year of the implementation phase of the Constitution. After August 2015, it will be necessary to review the progress made during this phase, as well as engage in a meaningful discussion on how to address gaps that may have appeared. Thereafter, there is a strong likelihood that resolution of some of these issues will give rise to a referendum in any case!
Secondly, the current clamor for a referendum has put the cart before the horse: the decision was first taken to have a referendum, followed by the process of shopping for issues upon which to hold a referendum.
In my humble opinion, given the proximity of the conclusion of the 5-year implementation window, it may be prudent to hold our horses just a little longer, and thereafter conduct a comprehensive assessment and review of the Constitution after August 2015. We would do ourselves a tremendous disservice if we began the unfortunate practice of regular piecemeal amendments to the Constitution, the very undoing of the old constitutional order.
This issue has unfortunately taken on a completely partisan dimension. So much so that issues and facts become irretrievably distorted. This is the downside of a duopoly. Most major issues are viewed and deliberated through a purely partisan lens. Never mind the fact that as political entities, the protagonists are much the same! There is no discernible ideology that separates Jubilee & CORD, and both are coalitions cobbled together along ethnic lines. The biggest deficiency of a duopoly, however, is that it denies the electorate a plurality of choice, confining them to hardline either/or scenarios on major issues and at elections.
In a situation such as this, alternative voices and ideas tend to get drowned out, if not actively shouted down by proponents of the dominant factions! After all, in a duopoly, both sides of the political divide have an interest in excluding other players: to consolidate their own relevance!
If we seek to establish a progressive political culture, and move our political discourse beyond ethnicity, we must realize the importance of a plurality beyond that which currently exists.
Given our history, we must actively embrace a practice of politics that is inclusive, rather than exclusive. For Kenya, it is of critical importance that we begin to shape a political culture that embraces our diversity: that sets the stage for future generations of Kenyans to freely engage in a politics that seeks to unite the country, even where there are differences in terms of approach or ideology.
As Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman famously put it, “We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature”. So our politics must, and will evolve. The only question is the direction we shall steer it!