The high number of independent candidates in Kenya’s August elections has caused a stir in the country, as it emerged that once elected they could work in partnership with registered political parties.
At the close of the May 10 deadline for parties to submit their aspirants’ lists and symbols to the electoral commission, there were 4,950 candidates who had applied to the Registrar of Political Parties to contest as independents. This was an increase by over 1,000 per cent from those who applied in 2013.
The unprecedented high number, observers say, could affect the growth of multiparty democracy if a majority of independent candidates win in the August polls.
According to Dr Carey Francis Onyango, executive director of the Centre for Multi-Party Democracy — which supports the growth of political pluralism through donor funding and goodwill — the trend wold weaken the party system.
“As much as the independents have rights provided for in the Constitution, there is a danger to the party system if there are many of them. In fact, the presidential run-off provision only envisages a two-party system to eliminate fringe candidates,” he said.
However, Gatobu Kinoti, a serving independent Member of Parliament, who is also running for the Meru Governor seat as an independent, believes that independent candidates are good for democracy because an MP’s work should not be influenced solely by political party interests.
According to Mr Kinoti, independent MPs are allowed to form partnerships with political parties in parliament to support or oppose Bills and motions.
“I worked in partnership with Jubilee in parliament. However, registering as a member of a political party after election as an independent party is not allowed. Jubilee even surrendered a slot for me on the Catering and Health Committee,” said Mr Kinoti.
Though provided for in the Constitution, for those who don’t share ideologies with exiting political parties, the high number of independent aspirants this year has placed focus on lack of inclusivity in political parties or even opportunists taking advantage of loopholes in the law.
Most of those who applied to vie as independents are citing the recent shambolic party primaries that did not give them a fighting chance, while others have refused to accept defeat.
Questions are emerging whether the emergence of many independents is a sign of growth of multi-party democracy or a degeneration at a time when Kenyans have been calling for two or three strong parties based on ideology.
Miguna Miguna, a candidate for the Nairobi gubernatorial race — who was one of the first politicians to announce his independent candidature in March 2016 — says Kenyans must now realise that political parties are not interested in the people but in serving their owners following the recent shambolic party primaries.
Among the prominent personalities who have decided to go independent after being defeated or “rigged out” of their parties, include; the 2013 presidential candidate Peter Kenneth, who was defeated and failed to get the Jubilee Party ticket for the governorship of Nairobi, former chairman of Wiper Party, David Musila, the chairman of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, Nicholas Gumbo, and deputy Leader of Minority in parliament, Jakoyo Midiwo.
The “independents wave” has also seen ten politicians vying for the presidency outside the existing political parties. They include former cabinet minister, Joseph Nyagah, David Munga, a 2007 presidential contestant, Nazlin Omar, Stephen Oganga, Robert Juma, Joseph Ngacha, Japheth Kavinga, Nixon Kukuboh, Joseph Musyoka and Erastus Nyamera.
A court ruling in February offered relief to the independents when it suspended Article 28 of the Election Act, 2011 and gave more time to independents to get themselves onto the ballot paper even after losing in the primaries.
The case filed by the Council of Governors, had argued that the amendments limit the freedom of association and the liberty of making political choices by Kenyans as provided for in the constitution, and that blocking losers from shifting their allegiance is unfair, since there were instances where losers ended up ousting the opponents they had faced.
In September last year, the Joint House Select Committee on Electoral Reforms, had introduced the Election Laws (Amendment) Act, 2016 which restricted the party-hopping.
The amendments supported by both President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader, Raila Odinga, had provided that once a candidate’s name is submitted to the IEBC as a member of the party at least 90 days before the election, they would be locked in that party and would not qualify to run as an independent candidate.
However, having many independent candidates is likely to pose two challenges.
One, it is going to make it difficult for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to navigate through a large number of independents because each one of them must have a symbol meaning the 2017 ballot paper could end up being like a booklet.
Second, many independents in parliament would pose a danger to the legislative agenda of the party with a majority because independents are likely to trade their votes to the highest bidder depending on the circumstances.
ODM chairman, John Mbadi — who was himself involved in a protracted dispute with his opponent over the party ticket for Suba Constituency in Nyanza — said the law against party hopping has encouraged more aspirants to go independent.
In 2013, those who were locked out of the mainstream parties during nomination preferred to hope to affiliate parties because the law against party-hopping had not been enacted.
Mr Mbadi insists that ODM had conducted far better and peaceful nominations this tear compared to 2013 and is, therefore, surprised why more people opted to run for election as independents.