What chaotic party primaries mean for Kenya’s General Election

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In his regular column for Kenya’s Sunday Nation newspaper, DiA’s Nic Cheeseman reflects on the country’s chaotic and controversial party primaries, and whether they imply that the general election will see a return to the political violence of 2007/8.


ONCE AGAIN, Kenya’s party primaries have generated domestic instability and international concern.

There have been logistical difficulties, accusations that candidates close to party leaders have been rigged in, and sporadic outbreaks of violence and unrest.

As a result, voters and candidates were left deeply unhappy with the outcome of some polls, while others had to be postponed or abandoned.

The failure of parties to manage nominations raises some important questions.

Which party has come out of the primaries more damaged? What are the prospects for developing more internally democratic parties in the future?


And do the problems we have seen over the last two weeks indicate that the General Election on August 8 will witness a return to the political disputes and ethnic clashes of 2007?

Many commentators have responded to these questions by arguing that the flawed primaries imply that the General Election will be violent and chaotic.

However, while it is important to be vigilant – and Kenyan elections often surprise – a more balanced analysis suggests that these prophecies of doom are likely to be wide of the mark.

Why so tense?

There are a number of reasons that party primaries in Kenya are particularly hotly contested. One is that certain positions — most notably those of MP, governor and president — promise great wealth and influence.

Another is that politicians remain national celebrities, with a far higher profile than music or TV stars, in sharp contrast to some other countries.


However, perhaps the most important factor that explains the intensity of the primaries is that in many areas the primaries are the election that matters.

Indeed, in places where one party tends to be dominant, receiving its nomination can all but guarantee victory.

Given this, it is to be expected that in some parts of the country the primaries generate as many challenges for peace and stability as the national polls.

We should also not be surprised that the Jubilee Party primaries appear to have been more problematic this time around.

Primaries become harder to manage the more factions a party contains and the more prominent figures it includes.


Thus, while Jubilee has been strengthened by the shift from a coalition to a party and the effort to co-opt a broader range of leaders, it is precisely these processes that have made it harder to maintain party discipline through the primary process.

Who are the biggest losers?

Whatever the reality, in 2013 the public perception seemed to be that the primaries of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM)/Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord) had been problematic.

In many cases, party leaders were accused of parachuting in their allies or family members at the expense of more locally legitimate candidates.

This hurt the reputation of the party/coalition, calling into question its reform credentials.

This year, the ODM/National Super Alliance primaries have again drawn criticism, but there have been more prominent reports of the breakdown of the process in the strongholds of the Jubilee Party than in the past.


Most notably, a number of newspapers have carried stories of rigging and violent stand-offs, and of major logistical challenges caused by a high than expected turnout.

This might suggest that, compared to 2013, the ruling party has lost greater credibility and momentum than the opposition.

However, in the long-run negative media coverage of the primary process is less significant than the question of what happens to the losing candidates.

If those who were overlooked remain loyal to the party, the electoral fallout of the past two weeks is likely to be limited on both sides of the political divide.

However, if influential leaders believe they have been unfairly treated and decide to run as independent candidates, taking their supporters with them and hence splitting the vote, parties may lose seats that they had previously considered safe.


Given this, what really matters is whether parties can find ways to retain the support of those who failed to secure nomination.

We will not be able to tell who has managed this challenge more effectively for another couple of weeks, but it is worth noting that ruling parties typically enter this period with a natural advantage because they enjoy greater access to the resources and patronage positions that can be used to compensate losing candidates.

Harbinger of doom?

Some commentators have taken the poor quality of the party primaries as a sign that the General Election will be problematic.

It is easy to see why – the same candidates who won the primaries will now begin to campaign for public office, and it is the same voters who will be going to the polls on August 8.


If the primaries are flawed, controversial, and occasionally violent, it makes sense to worry that the General Election might play out in the same way.

However, while such fears are understandable, they are also exaggerated.

It is true that the outcome of Kenyan elections is often controversial and in some cases has triggered violence, but this has rarely been the case when it comes to the process of voting itself.

If there is one thing that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has been good at, it is organising polling stations and concluding voting in an orderly and timely manner.

Kenyan voters also tend to play their part on polling day. The vast majority of election observation reports in 2013 praised the electorate for its impressive patience.


Even when forced to queue for long hours in the baking sun, Kenyans have demonstrated great fortitude, facilitating orderly voting.

For example, in 2007 – known for being the most divisive and problematic election in the country’s history – Kenyans were praised for their conduct on the day of voting.

Problems only began to emerge once the electoral system started to fall apart during the tallying of votes.

It therefore seems unlikely that the chaos that has been witnessed before and during the voting process in the primary polls will be repeated in August.


If the voting process is likely to be more orderly, what do the primaries say about the willingness of voters to accept the results of the General Election?

Does the controversy over the results of the primaries suggest that another disputed election is on the cards?

Possibly, but again there is limited evidence to link problematic primaries to General Election chaos.

It is not the case, for example, that the primaries were any worse in 2007 than they were in 2013.

Indeed, if anything, the 2013 primaries were more problematic, leading CNS news to conclude that the process had been “fraught with irregularities, disorganization and disgruntled losers, increasing the chances of conflict during the upcoming vote”.


Some of what went on in 2013 has now been forgotten, but at the time there were accusations of bribery and rigging and the security forces had to be deployed in some areas to keep the peace.

However, while this undermined the reputation of some parties, it did not lead to widespread violence during the General Election.

There were two main reasons that the 2013 election passed off relatively peacefully.

First, as I have already explained, many of the areas in which the primaries are most hotly contested are one-party dominant zones.

This means that unless losing candidates are able to find alternative parties, the General Election often passes without incident, with one candidate winning by a landslide.


Second, the security situation is radically different during the General Election. One of the things that prevented demonstrations against Uhuru Kenyatta’s first round victory in 2013 was the large deployment of the security forces.

This, coupled with the threat of a shoot-to-kill policy against protestors, ensured that many of those who might have been tempted to take to the streets stayed at home.

It is likely that the government will put in place a similar policy this time round, with similar results.

Taking a more balanced view of the impact of the primaries does not mean, of course, that we should be complacent about what they mean for the evolution of Kenyan political parties.

Back in 2006, Thomas Carothers identified parties as the “weakest link” in democratic transitions. Parties, he wrote, are “frequently beset with persistent problems of self-interest, corruption, ideological incoherence, and narrow electoralism”.


Carothers analysis covered five continents, but seems particularly apposite in Kenya, where many of the challenges of democratisation – corruption, electoral violence, vote manipulation – have been deeply entwined with the behaviour of the parties themselves.

Over the past 10 years there have been attempts to encourage a different kind of party that is more internally democratic and accountable.

These efforts have often hinged upon the introduction of new legislation to regulate parties, particularly when it comes to issues such as membership, coalition agreements and the conduct of primaries.

The problem is that such legislation has rarely been accompanied by an effective implementation strategy.


Instead, the question of who is responsible for enforcing party regulations has often been left vague.

In turn, this has historically enabled the electoral commission and other bodies to abdicate responsibility by arguing that it is up to the parties to regulate themselves.

The difficulties witnessed over the last few weeks demonstrate that this system simply does not work.

Unless things change so that legislation is backed up by effective enforcement, parties will continue to be the “weakest link” in the future.


Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham

This piece first appeared in Kenya’s Sunday Nation newspaper

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