The push and pull of party alliances in Kenya

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Editor: Nic Cheeseman

In his bi-monthly column for the Daily Nation, our co-editor Nic Cheeseman, reflects back on a workshop he organised in Nairobi. The workshop drew in colleagues from the University of Oxford  and the Institute for Development Studies at Nairobi University to discuss the impact that coalitions have on nine different political systems based on legislative data and MP interviews. Nic shares with us some of their findings…


Coalitions are the lifeblood of Kenyan politics. As a result of the high level of ethnic diversity and the absence of parties that can effectively recruit support across ethnic lines, no individual politician or political party can hope to secure power on his or her own. To secure a majority of the vote in the presidential election, or a majority of the seats in the legislature, leaders must form alliances.

But how is coalitional politics different from one-party rule, and what consequences does it have for the rest of the political system? Last Monday I organized a workshop in Nairobi with colleagues from Oxford University and the Institute for Development Studies at Nairobi University to try and answer some of these questions.

One of the most interesting questions we discussed was whether coalitions have strengthened or undermined Kenyan democracy. Much of the academic literature has tended to assume that the combination of presidential political systems and coalitional politics is bad for democratic consolidation.

The first wave of literature had less to say about the question of coalitions and simply argued that presidential political systems were worse for democracy than parliamentary ones. Juan Linz influentially argued that the combination of a separately elected legislature and executive was a recipe for disaster. Linz reasoned that because presidents and parliaments have competing sources of legitimacy, and are unable to remove each other from office, presidential systems are more likely to suffer recurrent conflict between the two arms of government. But it quickly became apparent that many countries with presidential systems were relatively stable, most notably the United States of America.

As a result, the debate evolved. In the second wave, scholars such as Scott Mainwaring argued that the problem was not just presidentialism but the ‘difficult combination’ of presidentialism and multiparty politics. The issue, Mainwaring suggested, was not that presidential systems would inevitably break down, but that in countries with fragmented parliaments, such as Kenya, presidents could not effectively coordinate support in the lower house, giving rise to ineffective governments unable to pass their legislative agendas. But this argument also failed to fit with reality, because a number of presidential systems such as Brazil managed to become stable democracies despite having deeply divided parliaments.

This realisation led to a third wave of literature, which has argued that presidents can effectively manage multi-party coalitions by acting like Prime Ministers. Our research takes off from this insight, and investigates what strategies presidents have used to form and maintain coalitions in 9 countries: Brazil, Chile and Ecuador, Armenia, Ukraine, Russia, and Kenya, Benin and Malawi. As well as collecting data on each legislature, we interview MPs to get their perspective on coalitional politics.

In the Kenyan context, legislators recognise that coalitions have benefits, but remain skeptical about their overall impact. For example, the majority of MPs interviewed agreed that coalitions enhance the quality of public policy, make the law making process more decisive and encourage political stability. MPs also believe that coalitions have increased the representation of diverse social interests within the government.

The data on the composition of the Cabinet in Mwai Kibaki’s first term (2002-2007) bears this out. While the size of the Cabinet steadily increased from 25 to 34 over the years, the proportion of positions that went to members of Kibaki’s own Kikuyu ethnic group declined from 28 per cent to 21 per cent. In a country in which political exclusion has triggered ethnic clashes in the recent past, this is a matter of no small importance.

But coalitions do not come without costs. Every Kenyan MP that we have talked to so far has agreed that the need to form coalitions has encouraged a style of politics based on the exchange of favours – a short hand for a range of unofficial activities including corruption.

MPs were also unanimous in arguing that the formation of coalitions makes it harder for voters to assign accountability. This was well-illustrated by the fate of the power-sharing administration that governed Kenya between 2008 and 2013; when the ODM/PNU ‘marriage of convenience’ ended, voters were not sure who to praise for economic recovery, and who to blame for corruption. It is, therefore, perhaps unsurprising that the vast majority of legislators that we talked to concluded that all things considered coalitions were ‘harmful as they weaken democratic accountability’, compared to a small minority who felt that overall presidential coalitions were valuable because ‘they generate political stability’.

These findings are similar to a number of other countries in our study from post-communist Europe and Latin America, where MPs see coalitions as a necessary evil. As in Kenya, legislators in places such as Brazil and Ukraine recognise that given the size and strength of their political parties they have no alternative but to form coalitions. They also believe that by enabling larger and more inclusive governments, coalitions have laid the foundations for more politically stable and representative governments. 

But just like Kenyan MPs, they understand that by empowering presidents to more effectively manage parliament coalitions undermine scrutiny and as a result can facilitate democratic backsliding. The overall evaluation of Kenyan legislators is therefore a common one in many large and diverse societies. Coalitions: can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

This post was originally published on 20th December 2013 in the Daily Nation. 

The Daily Nation is the largest newspaper in East Africa with a daily circulation of around 205,000.

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