Uhuru cannot start planning second term yet

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Some commentators are claiming that the Jubilee Party have the 2017 in the bag. Taking a look at both the history of past parties and the current political landscape, Nic Cheeseman argues that we cannot be so sure. This blog was originally published in Nic’s regular column for the Daily Nation.

The creation of the Jubilee Party is the biggest shake-up of Kenyan politics since the formation of the Orange Democratic Movement over a decade ago. Its leaders hope a more integrated political organisation will make it easier to control the different factions that make up the government. They are also banking on a more efficient and streamlined campaign paying dividends in the 2017 General Election, allowing them not just to win but to win big. Jubilee leaders are determined to win by a commanding margin to make it harder for Mr Raila Odinga and the opposition to claim the election was rigged.

The construction of a new ruling party, along with the spate of recent defections and the advantages of incumbency available to President Kenyatta have led some commentators to conclude the 2017 election is already over. But efforts to form more united and stable parties in Kenya have rarely gone smoothly, and few survive for more than a few years. With the exception of the Orange Democratic Movement, pretty much every large coalition or party has collapsed under the weight of its internal tensions, from the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy to the National Rainbow.

So what are the prospects for Jubilee Party and will it change the face of Kenyan politics? Forming a new party is hard work. Of the 12 allied parties that merged into one, some are fairly small and about half lack any significant legislative presence. Why, then, are Jubilee leaders so keen to have these parties merge into one?

The first reason is the most obvious. The government wants to generate early momentum behind its 2017 election campaign. The formation of Jubilee Party is designed to advertise the level of support behind President Kenyatta. This reflects the fact that Kenyatta and Ruto’s campaign message is likely to be very different from the one deployed in 2013.

In that election, the prosecution of Jubilee leaders by the International Criminal Court enabled Kenyatta and Ruto to generate a siege mentality within the Kikuyu and Kalenjins, boosting turn out in their home areas. In 2017, instead of focusing on Kenyatta and Ruto as the leaders of their own ethnic groups, government strategists will present Jubilee as Kenya’s only national party, depicting the opposition as on an old fashioned ‘ethnic’ logic.

In order to make the claim to national inclusivity more plausible, President Kenyatta needs to demonstrate he has the support of a greater number of MPs from broader geographical base. The Jubilee Party attempts to penetrate areas such as the former Western and Coast Provinces, and cultivate defections from opposition parties in order to achieve that goal.

The second motivation behind Jubilee Party is more subtle. Ever since the 2013 elections, Kenyatta and Ruto have struggled to contain the squabbles between their rival factions. This has been one of the main reasons the government has failed to get a handle on corruption, and it also threatens to undermine Ruto’s ambition to succeed Kenyatta as a presidential candidate in 2022. Building a stronger party with a more effective hierarchy promises to make it easier for Kenyatta to discipline his troops and then to line them behind Ruto – although this may yet prove to be the issue over which the new party breaks down.

The formation of Jubilee Party will have a significant impact on the opposition because it changes the political landscape facing Cord leaders. Ahead of most Kenyan elections there is a high level of party swapping as rival leaders try and secure the best position they can. In 2012/13, the formation of a tight alliance between Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto meant that the then Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka was surplus to requirements. He subsequently crossed the floor to form the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (Cord) with Mr Odinga in order to maintain his ‘running mate’ status. In turn, the strengthening of Odinga’s support base panicked Jubilee leaders, who encouraged Musalia Mudavadi to leave ODM and run as their presidential candidate. Although they later changed their minds, Mudavadi did not go back to ODM, and instead ran as a third candidate.

This time around, if there is no change on one side of the political divide, leaders on the other have nowhere to go. In other words, if Kenyatta and Ruto stay together, there are no high profile positions to attract prominent Cord leaders to defect. Musyoka may be tempted to abandon Odinga if he thinks that the campaign is lost, but given how many senior figures are already established within Jubilee he would have to accept a position low down in the pecking order. The Wiper leader may still decide to move, or to stand on his own, but he now faces far fewer incentives to do so.

In this way, the formation of Jubilee Party may impose a degree of unity on senior Cord leaders, and thus help to stabilise the opposition. However, the situation will be very different when it comes to the position of Governors, Senators, and MPs, where the campaign resources Jubilee can offer has already triggered a wave of defections. The formation of a better-integrated ruling party is likely to shape the outcome of the 2017 election in two ways.

First, if it starts to look like the government will win there is the potential for “bandwagoning” as candidates for legislative and county posts jump ship to improve their chances of being on the winning side. This has the potential to strengthen Jubilee’s base at the sub-national level and, through the accumulated activity of new recruits, to empower the national campaign. The early signs are that this process has already begun. Since the official inauguration of the party on September 8 25 MPs have defected from parties such as ODM, Kanu and Wiper have already defected – and according to Ruto there are more to come.

Second, moving from a coalition to a party may generate efficiencies and cost savings that enable the party to run a more effective campaign. This impact will not be felt as intensely at the national level – after all, these parties supported Kenyatta’s candidacy last time round. The real benefit for the government will come in the county and legislative polls. Historically, Kenyan political coalitions have often failed to run a common slate of candidates for all positions. Under these conditions, parties within an alliance may compete against each other in the contests for Senators, Governors and MPs. This kind of internal competition diverts resources away from where they are most needed – i.e. defeating rival coalitions. It also creates the possibility that allied parties will split the vote, allowing other coalitions to steal what should be safe seats.

In the 2007 election, for example, it was estimated internal battles between the different members of the then President Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity led to the loss of around 10 seats to the opposition. This was significant, because the opposition was able to use its legislative strength to secure the position of speaker for the first time in Kenyan history. Analysis conducted by the well-respected Kenya watcher Charles Hornsby suggests that the combination of recent defections and the formation of Jubilee Party mean the government is now supported by roughly two-thirds of the National Assembly and that ‘Half Ukambani, Kisii and Coast MPs are now “Jubilee”‘. On this basis, Hornsby suggests that ‘the 2017 Kenyan general election is almost over already’. However, it is a little early to conclude President Kenyatta can start to plan his second term in State House.

To start with, many of the MPs who have defected to Jubilee will struggle to persuade their supporters to do the same. Some MPs have defected because they know they will win their seats and want greater access to patronage. But others have joined because they fear they will lose, and are hoping that swapping sides will save them. Given this, it may be that the complexities of local politics and the refusal of some people to follow their leaders into Jubilee, will protect the opposition’s support base in Eastern, Western and at the Coast. As a result, it is not clear the extension of Jubilee control over the National Assembly means it has extended its control over the national vote.

We also need to wait and see whether the new party will make it through the primaries unscathed. This is typically the moment at which coalitions and parties fragment, as losing candidates leave to contest the elections on other tickets. Jubilee is working hard to stop this happening, using a variety of carrots and sticks including new legislation to stop party swapping. But we have seen these kinds of rules before and they have yet to be enforced – getting them to work will be the making, or the breaking, of Jubilee Party.

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