Close to half of Kenyan members of parliament are expected to defect to new political parties as they seek re-election in the coming August polls, underlining the dearth of ideology in the country’s politics since the return of multiparty democracy in 1991.
Ahead of the March 26 deadline for parties to submit membership lists to the Registrar of Political Parties, about 180 members of the National Assembly and the Senate had publicly shifted loyalty from the parties that sponsored them for the 2017 election, with the number expected to rise.
There are a total of 416 members in the country’s two-chamber national parliament, including those nominated to represent special interest groups such as the youth, women and people living with disability.
The party exodus hasn’t spared the devolved governments either, with at least 15 of the 26 first-term County governors who are eligible for re-election this year having changed party affiliations.
Aspirants for the various elective seats must confirm membership of a party by March 26 to be eligible for the party primaries in April under the new law enacted this February.
The law allows those with no political party affiliations to contest as independent candidates.
Most of the politicians defecting to new parties see the tickets of their new parties as offering the best chance of winning, especially in regions where the party is deemed dominant. Some politicians simply do not trust their parties to conduct fair primaries hence opt to defect.
More importantly, the seasonal defections offer a glimpse of the country’s struggles with multiparty democracy against the backdrop of ethnic mobilisation around widely popular people in politics that have seen no president vie or defend his seat using the same party or coalition in the past four election cycles.
Kenyans will be voting in the seventh election in 30 years since the reintroduction of multiparty political system – the country having been declared a de jure one-party state in 1982.
But over the years, the political parties that have emerged just for the electioneering period have tended to be weak in the absence of compelling values, such as the free market and socialist ideologies that have kept their counterparts in Western democracies rooted and ideologically strong over the years.
Each of the top four parties in Kenya’s 1992 general election – Kanu, Ford Kenya, Ford Asili and the Democratic Party (DP) – is a pale shadow of its former self.
Kanu, the party of independence, and which won 100 parliamentary seats in 1992 under then president Daniel arap Moi, currently has only 10 seats in an expanded National Assembly.
Ford-Kenya is the only other recognisable surviving parliamentary party from that generation, although it has seen its numbers dwindle from 31 parliamentary seats in 1992 to 12 currently.
Political parties' influence over the rank and file in Kenya often pales in comparison to that of their founders, mostly charismatic personalities with cult-like following in their bases, mostly the country’s big five ethnic communities.
More recently, political parties have also found themselves struggling for identity, with the rise of coalitions – largely ethnic alliances hurriedly assembled as special purpose vehicles for the election.
A majority of the latest lot of defectors, for example, are shifting loyalties to either the Azimio la Umoja coalition associated with President Uhuru Kenyatta and his preferred successor, Raila Odinga, or the Kenya Kwanza Alliance led by Deputy President William Ruto.
The two coalitions fancied to produce Kenya’s fifth president have each been assembled in the past two months and look set to extend the country’s 20-year record of not having anyone elected to the top seat on the same party ticket.