Have ODM and TNA run their course in Kenya?

UhuRuto 2013 sign downtown
The great puzzle for those of us who have worked on “democracy promotion” or “democracy support” in Kenya has been whether there is something that can be done to assist Kenyans in building meaningful, coherent political parties that are more than amorphous vehicles for individual ambitions and a “tribal” spoils system.  The record in this regard has been discouraging.  When I was with IRI in 2007-08, one of my European counterparts of long experience explained that his organization had concluded that the effort was simply not fruitful and resources were better spent in other areas.

At this point I am afraid that we see some history repeating itself.  TNA is having difficulties with the inattention of its titular leader, President Kenyatta.  It is not hard to see TNA now as simply a vessel for Uhuru’s campaign, a means that he created to line up his core Kikuyu support when, supposedly, there was significant sentiment among the elites to find alternatives due to the difficulties of the ICC charges, and even the notion that it might be safer to chose Mudavadi or someone else who was an amenable insider but a member of another tribe.  Certainly Uhuru’s record as a party builder is not encouraging.  After being tapped as KANU leader by Moi in 2002 and losing to Kibaki he kept leadership of the party (with Ruto as a Secretary General) and was one of the leading figures in the formation of the Orange Democratic Movement as leader of the Official Opposition in Parliament, campaigning against the “Wako Draft” constitution in Central Province during the November 2005 referendum.

Nonetheless, as things were shaking out to nominate a presidential candidate for the ODM side in the second half of 2007, Uhuru made the unprecedented move as leader of the parliamentary opposition to cross over to support Kibaki’s re-election.  Moi also announced his support for Kibaki in this time frame.  Uhuru kept formal control of KANU but the party was gutted as most of the potential KANU voters in the Rift Valley went with Raila, along with Ruto who formally joined ODM, contested for the nomination there and served as a key figure in the “Pentagon”.  Then Uhuru himself struck out to form TNA for the 2012-13 race.

It is hardly a shock that party building for TNA does not seem to be a priority for Uhuru now that he has State House.  Looking to history, even his father focused on building his power and controlling Kenya through the State and a centralized bureaucracy rather than through KANU even when other parties were not allowed in practice.

ODM can claim substantial success, but therein lies its problem now.  ODM arose out of the campaign to defeat the “Wako Draft” constitution–arguably a reformist undertaking to vindicate the broad based effort to move Kenya forward by reducing the monopoly of power in the presidency.  After winning a parliamentary majority (and apparently getting more votes in the presidential race) in 2007, the negotiated settlement paved the way, finally, for a new reform constitution in 2010.  By that time, Ruto had switched sides and was the key opponent of the new constitution, and of Odinga, and delivered a heavy “no” vote in the Rift Valley while the constitution was passing overwhelmingly through the rest of the county.  On paper, Ruto remained in ODM throughout, and then formed URP as his own vehicle for 2012-13 while Uhuru was forming TNA. ( KANU meanwhile still exists, but it is a bit hard to really know why other than the fact that registered parties almost never formally dissolve.)

This left ODM by the 2013 election as the single strong national party on paper but neither fish nor fowl.  The constitution was “mission accomplished”.  Odinga was no longer clearly in opposition as the sitting prime minister, and perhaps most symbolically picked up Wako himself in ODM, while facing a Jubilee coalition of that effectively united most of the old order against him, including each of the members of the old 2007 Pentagon except for Mudavadi who ran alone after having gotten so far as getting a signed deal, quickly disowned, from Uhuru to make Mudavadi the establishment presidential candidate of Jubilee.  On the critical issue of the ICC cases, Odinga himself was never able to arrive at a coherent position, reportedly even making a last minute attempt to woo Ruto back as his running mate before aligning with Vice President Musyoka who had been Kibaki’s leading international envoy in attempting to gut the ICC cases.

Thus it is hardly surprising that the passage of a year with little power in the central government leaves ODM struggling to decide what it wants to be now.

Devolution under the new constitution could be a game changer finally for party building in Kenya, but it will be at best a long slow process against concerted opposition.  Kenya will never have a successful multiparty democracy unless and until it has some political leaders who will be willing to invest some real political capital at the expense of short term expediency to the long term health and coherency of a particular party.

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