Politics and Society
Kenya’s political elites switch parties with every election – how this fuels violence
The fluidity of the country’s short-lived coalitions is a major cause of instability in Kenya.
Barely seven months after leaving office, Kenya’s former president Uhuru Kenyatta is battling to keep together the party that won him a second term and a majority in parliament in 2017. His Jubilee Party performed dismally in the 2022 election. Only 25 out of 290 members of parliament, two out of 47 senators and one county governor out of 47 were elected on its ticket. This isn’t surprising in Kenya where political elites switch parties and coalitions with every election. No political party or coalition has ruled for more than one term since the opposition deposed the independence movement, KANU, in 2002. Gilbert Khadiagala, a political scientist who has researched the fluidity of Kenya’s political coalitions, explains the impact of this.
What is the background of Kenya’s fluid political landscape?
The onset of the multiparty era in the early 1990s brought a new phase of complex political coalitions and alliances. They were competing against the previously dominant political party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU). Typical of Africa’s post-colonial dominant parties, KANU governed for more than two decades through authoritarian methods. Under presidents Jomo Kenyatta (1963-1978) and Daniel Moi (1978-2002), KANU co-opted opposition figures into an elaborate system of patronage and coerced critics who didn’t toe the party line.
The coalitions that emerged were based primarily on ethnic and regional affiliations – they were overwhelmingly elite-based. The first was the Forum for the Restoration Democracy (FORD). However, barely a year into its existence, FORD broke into two major factions – FORD Kenya and FORD Asili – in August 1992. Further splits followed.
The dominant coalitions that participated in the August 2022 elections – the Kenya Kwanza alliance (led by William Ruto) and the Azimio alliance (led by Raila Odinga) – comprise many smaller parties. They are products of previous failed attempts at alliance building.
In 30 years of competitive politics, coalitions were expected to gradually stabilise into coherent political parties with national reach and resonance. Instead, political coalitions in Kenya have not advanced beyond their narrow bases. They remain fundamentally ethnic and regional machines that are frequently scrambled together on the eve of elections to win power.
I have studied Kenya’s politics for 30 years. It’s my view that Kenyan coalitions that rise and fall with every election do not provide the foundation for steady and enduring party systems. These coalitions postpone the evolution of national parties that would lend some predictability and stability to political competition.
Parties should broadly reflect – and manage – societal differences. In Germany, for instance, parties have come together to overcome certain historical differences by calling on shared interests. Germany’s coalition governments are largely based on well-established political parties, not conglomerations concocted before elections as in Kenya. And political parties negotiate these governing coalitions after elections, not before.
Throughout Africa, where ethnic and regional divisions are paramount, political mobilisations deepen societal differences. Electoral violence occurs because winning coalitions control all the national resources.
The winner-takes-all political systems of countries like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Sierra Leone face a related problem: they have very small independent private sectors. So winners are tempted to use political power to grab national resources.
What are the main weaknesses of fluid political coalitions?
They cause instability in the country. Unstable coalitions contribute to electoral violence as losing coalitions vent their grievances. Following the violent aftermath of the 2017 Kenyan elections, Odinga’s coalition at the time, the National Super Alliance (NASA), threatened to agitate for the secession of his support base from Kenya.
In 2002, there was a brief phase of optimism for an enduring coalition. The National Rainbow Alliance (NARC), led by Mwai Kibaki, was a grouping of the leading ethnic groups ranged against Moi’s chosen successor, Kenyatta. But it ended in civil conflict in 2007-2008 after Kibaki marginalised key allies largely on ethnic and regional lines.
The Government of National Unity crafted by international actors in 2008 became an uneasy and unwieldy coalition. Its members decamped to new coalitions in the next elections.
Subsequent political alliances have reproduced the conditions for anxiety and chaos after every election. Despite the 2010 constitution giving more power to Kenya’s 47 counties, political elites remain fixated on winning presidential elections to gain power at the centre.
The unstable coalitions also account for widespread corruption. Winning coalitions expend enormous resources to fortify their power. To do this they have to loot state resources.
What are the strengths of these loose coalitions?
In societies where ethnic groups coincide with regions, coalitions are one of the means of organising competitive politics. The loose coalitions enable leaders who neither share policies nor vision to temporarily accommodate each other. This creates a semblance of national unity. The fluid coalitions are, therefore, essential in such political landscapes until national cohesion and coherence are achieved.
When the search for presidential power ceases to be politically relevant and salient, Kenya’s politics will be normalised. Transforming coalitions into solid parties may take time. But it’s the only way out of the prevailing political stalemate.
What adjustments should be made?
Kenyans do share basic bread-and-butter interests. When those interests are highlighted – instead of ethnic and regional affiliations – political parties with national outreach could emerge.
It’s elites who emphasise cultural and ethnic differences between regions. They have a large stake in the stalemate continuing, instead of building institutionalised parties. The puzzle for Kenya is how to transform ethnic diversities and identities into the foundations for predictable and organised politics.
Gilbert M. Khadiagala, Jan Smuts Professor of International Relations and Director of the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS), University of the Witwatersrand
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