Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The proposed Kenya referendum: Is it well-intentioned or a political ploy?

If Raila Amolo Odinga gets his way, Kenyans could go to another referendum within the next few years for the third time in the country's history - this time not to enact a new constitution, but to decide on amendments that could significantly change the way this country is governed.

Raila, the undisputed leader of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), has adopted a revolutionary pet project which, if Kenyans approve, could see the dismantlement of the present republican system of government and the introduction of a parliamentary system.

Separately, the Senate has made it known that it would push a series of amendments through a referendum to give devolved governments more fiscal and operating powers. These may look like two different initiatives but they are actually driven by the same man.

The presidential system which we have used for 50 years is not perfect and a change to a parliamentary system is not bad. But the timing and motive of this proposal is suspect. It appears to me that the CORD leader is only trying to find a back-door route to the presidency by claiming that the current system shuts out smaller tribes from reaching the high office.

Is Raila just realising that?  How come he did not advance that argument before the 2007 polls, or even before the 2012 elections. Why did he choose to play along, when he didn't believe in the presidential system? Was it because he thought he would win and enjoy the powers normally vested in the executive?

Raila's current campaign is a political ploy meant to benefit him as a presidential candidate in the next elections and not a genuine initiative to reform our governance structure. He knows well that under the present constitution, the president does not enjoy the kind of powers the last three presidencies enjoyed. That is why he is rooting for the executive premiership.

The truth is, both systems have cons and pros. In a parliamentary system, people elect MPs who then elect the Prime Minister. MPs can also pass a vote of no-confidence on their leader at any time during the parliamentary term. The down-side, however, is that people don't get a chance to pick their chief executive, an option some say is not democratic.

On the other hand, the presidential system rests all powers on the president. Under this system chances of a leader becoming authoritarian are high. We saw it here with President Moi. On the positive side, however, people get a chance to elect their leader directly. Where institutions work, like in the United States, the presidential system is undoubtedly more democratic.

Finally, I want to submit that both Raila's proposal and the Senate's move are dangerous for this country. We have just come out of a very complex electoral exercise. For the rest of this year, the country will go through dozens of by-elections as a result of successful petitions filed by candidates in various elective offices. If the referendum takes place in the next two years, the country will be thrown into an active campaign mood, only two years before the next general election in 2017. Can we really afford almost four years of continuos campaigns? The answer is no.

We have a government that is busy trying to implement promises it made to the people of Kenya, and we cannot afford the kind of distractions accompanying a referendum. The bottom line is that our country is just  too fragile and too divided to take the weight of a politically-motivated plebiscite.
And that is my say.