Sunday, August 18, 2013

Shelve the electoral college idea. Forever.

This past week has seen some of the most interesting events in politics in Africa for a decade. Many hailed the Tunisian-inspired Arab Spring, believing that when it was over, democracy would bloom in the Arab world. The military coup in Egypt, the eruption of fresh sectarian killings in Iraq, the bombings in Yemen and Lebanon, the continuing slaughter in Syria, and the hands-off attitude of Barack Obama's United States would seem to belie this. In Egypt, especially, there are lessons for the burgeoning armies of Raila Odinga's CORD and Uhuru Kenyatta's Jubilee.

When Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled using emergency powers since 1980, was overthrown in 2011, even the United States was forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that there was no secular democratic process in place to replace him. They watched with horror as the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood swept the transitional elections, oversaw the drafting of a new constitution and installed its own man as president at the ensuing elections. The people of Egypt, initially, were willing to give the Muslim Brotherhood the benefit of the doubt; the Egyptian army was not. When it became apparent that Mohamed Morsy, the Brotherhood's man in the presidential palace, was incompetent and tending towards Mubarak-style autocracy, they simply stepped back in. What is of interest to Kenyans is the belief that a constitution is a panacea for the problems Egypt has faced has been discounted by the blood being spilled in Egypt's violent reaction to Mohamed Morsy's overthrow.

Kenyans worked for twenty-five years towards a new constitution, promulgated in 2010. The process was marred by tribal politics on a scale witnessed last during the 1997 general election. Kenyans, notoriously, refused to interrogate the Harmonised Draft Constitution; they simply fell in line with what their tribal kingpins told them to do. The many flaws in the draft were to be dealt with after the referendum. In March 2013, Kenyans elected a new government under the constitution. Uhuru Kenyatta, who was tepid in his support for the Harmonised Draft Constitution, and William Ruto, who was adamantly opposed to it, were elected as President and Deputy President, and Raila Odinga, who supported the draft wholeheartedly, lost the presidential contest and the election petition he filed at the Supreme Court.

One of the interesting events during the run up to the referendum was the debate on whether Kenya should have a parliamentary or presidential system. For three days at Naivasha, Raila Odinga and ODM were adamant that a parliamentary system was the best solution. Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto favoured a presidential system. Indeed, they favoured any system that was not favoured by Raila Odinga, so when he abruptly changed his mind and stated that he would support a presidential system they were wrongfooted and their attempts to change their minds in Parliament were thwarted. They were worried that Mr Odinga would rule like a dictator if he won the general election with a presidential system in place. In any event, they managed to triumph over Mr Odinga. He is now calling for a referendum to amend the constitution and place the power of electing the president in an electoral college after the results of the general election have been announced.

Mr Odinga and CORD are wrong. Whether they anticipated it or not, the Tyranny of Numbers Hypothesis was always part of the equation in a general election in Kenya. Despite the constitution-making process spanning two-and-a-half decades, Kenyans were not a non-tribal society at the time of the referendum, and they have only gotten more close-minded since then. In the 2013 general election, Raila Odinga controlled the bulk of the Luo-speaking vote, Uhuru Kenyatta the Kikuyu, and William Ruto the Kalenjin. This is an indisputable fact. During the election campaign, not one of them suggested that they could step down in favour of a candidate from Ukambani, Pwani, Western, North Eastern and such like. Marginalised and smaller tribes in Kenya were firmly put in their place; they would not be sending their man or woman to State House. Therefore, it is a bit facetious for Mr Odinga to suggest that part of his desire to amend the constitution is to give "smaller tribes a chance to lead."

Kenya faces many problems, but the system of government is not one of them. We have tried the parliamentary system before. It did not take. We are in the middle of implementing a presidential one. Only a full term will give us sufficient information to decide whether we want to keep it or modify it. The behaviour of Members of Parliament, both in the National Assembly and in the Senate, does not inspire confidence that when given the opportunity to elect a president, they will do so with the needs of Kenyans in mind. Therefore, the calls for a presidential electoral college should be shelved. For good.

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