It seems that now all the potential main presidential contenders in Kenya’s polls next year have found/bought/formed their “election vehicles”, as the media likes to call them.
Of the elite group of presidential aspirants, only three — Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM); Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka and his renamed Wiper Democratic Movement; and Martha Karua and her Narc-Kenya — are riding to the election in the “vehicles” in which they were members during the 2007 elections.
The fluidity of parties in Kenya has led to a popular view that the “party system is in crisis in Kenya” or that it is a “partyless democracy”.
Many see this as a problem, in part because it raises the transaction cost of politics. However, is it really all-good to have a solid party system?
A certain Kenyan politician has been in the news recently for allegedly urging members of the party to vote for a dog rather than candidates from outside the strongholds of the party. For the record, he has denied he made those remarks.
On second thoughts, you could argue that it is good to have a party to which members are so devoted, they would rather elect a dog or donkey standing on its ticket, than a real warm-bodied human candidate from another party.
This loyalty to party can reduce corruption in politics, because such devoted members don’t need to be bribed. Certainly, no dog has money of its own to buy votes.
However, even with that, there is a case that can be made in favour of the party crisis in Kenya. As an outsider, I am struck by the fact that because of the wobbly nature of parties, an incredible amount of politics in Kenya is farmed out to non-regular political platforms.
In Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda, where you have big-chested ruling parties, election campaigns will end without their candidates showing up in church to make a political pitch to the flock. In Kenya, church appearances are big business — and big news.
In Tanzania, President Jakaya Kikwete will end a campaign and in Rwanda President Paul Kagame will breeze through it without being crowned by some feathered tribal elders. In Kenya, those endorsements are eagerly sought.
In Kenya, because of the fragility of parties, elections — and politics in general — are a big proxy fight. Thus, Gema had a big meeting in Limuru early in the year, and it was understood to all that it was the platform for Establishment and old-money politics in the wider central Kenya, and supporters of Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta.
Then there is Kikuyus for Change, the anti-Establishment anti-old money voice in central Kenya, which had a Limuru B meeting, and is open for business with politicians from outside the region.
While PM Raila likes to champion ODM at every turn, to understand how his campaign is unfolding, you need to look elsewhere — at a fairly well-honed lobby group called Friends of Raila.
They are the ones with the money to buy two-page adverts in newspapers, and to fight court cases against things that might disadvantage Raila.
Politics, especially election campaigns in Kenya, therefore, are a highly-franchised and sub-contracted activity, where a lot of the work is done by organisations other than the registered party of a particular candidate.
Because of this, Kenya has become the first East African country to have a fully developed political market — or better still political exchange.
Kenyan politicians thus come to this political market just as one of many customers to buy services. Being in the good graces of a popular pastor buys you access to the pulpit on Sunday and a quality crowd, plus a spot on the evening TV news.
Even if you are a politician with a lousy public relations machine, the suave pastor will put the word out to the media that the Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister is to pray at his church — thus a secondary trade has developed where the coverage of the politician is free advertising for the church.
Because Kenya now has this political exchange, politicians and parties exist, but trading with new stock available to be bought by the highest bidder and new entrants.
It is stressful and disgusting to political purists, but it spreads the lollipop and happiness wider.