Referendum timely to unclamp winner-takes-it-all politics vice

Wednesday March 18 2020

Nasa supporters protest the outcome of the presidential election in Kondele, Kisumu County, on October 30, 2017. Unhealthy electoral competition adversely alters the business culture. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


It is time for Kenyans to push for a comprehensive reform of the country’s political system.

The premature 2022 election campaigns, and the bitter political rivalries that inundate our media everyday, demonstrate that clinching power in Kenya is a zero-sum game.

Eat or be eaten is the rule; sadly, it is also the cancer eating away at the country’s social fabric and dimming its economic prospects.

The negative effects of winner-takes-it-all politics on society are clear — it has created an entitled political class that won’t hesitate to bend any rule in the pursuit of power and wealth.

This is setting a bad example for youth, who comprise 80 percent of the population.


It is shocking but not surprising that the 2016 Kenya Youth Survey by the Aga Khan University found that five out of every 10 young Kenyans agree that “it doesn’t matter how one makes money as long as one does not end up in jail”.

Because of the dramatically huge incentive that the political system creates to win elections, politicians would do anything to elbow out their rivals.

In this environment, uncertainty is never far away and businesses typically find it difficult to make long-term investments, hampering economic growth.

Pointedly, out of the 10 general elections that Kenya held between independence and 2013, economic growth in the following year slowed in seven elections, according to the Institute of Economic Affairs.


The 2017 elections weren’t any different. In fact, growth could have contracted quite drastically were it not for the ‘handshake’ between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga which restored investor confidence.

Unhealthy electoral competition doesn’t just dissuade investors from pumping money into the economy; it also adversely alters the business culture.

It leads to patronage networks, where business is awarded on the basis of political affiliations and not quality goods and services delivered at competitive prices.

This hampers innovation as businesses don’t need great products to succeed, but access to the right politician.

It undermines Kenya’s competitiveness in global markets, making it harder for our exports to attain volumes that can bridge the widening trade deficit and create high quality local jobs for our youth.


Evidently, no reform will be complete without first mending the broken political system. And the proposed referendum could achieve just this — it could change the system.

Although the precise amendments that need to be made to our Constitution are still open for discussion, there is consensus that the plebiscite will create a more inclusive and equitable government.

We need a government with functional checks to power at the top and room for smaller communities to participate in a real and transformative way.

The Constitution partly gives us this through devolution. However, we need to go a step further as power is still inordinately concentrated at the top, creating an incentive for politicians to consolidate too much power.

This, as history shows, leads to dictatorships and autocratic states.


Ironically, while dictators were the poster boys of African politics a few decades ago, the continent is an increasingly different place.

Things have changed drastically, thanks to demographic shifts and technology. Youth, by far the most populous segment of the population, are not afraid to speak out against authority.

They coordinate and plan protests on social media, making it harder for government machinery to crack down on them.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled) recorded 3,791 protests in 2018, from only 653 in 2008, and considerably longer in duration.

If the winner-takes-it-all system is not dismantled, we could open the door to instability. The referendum idea is, therefore, timely.

It is not about taking power from a particular politician, but giving it to its rightful owners — the people. When the people win, everybody else stands to benefit.

Mr Kittony is the chairman, Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry. [email protected]