Wednesday, July 23, 2014

THE KENYA OPPOSITION REFERENDUM INITIATIVE IS DEAD IN THE WATER

Four years after Kenya's last referendum in which people voted for the country's constitution, and months after a failed push by county governors for a plebiscite to decide on issues to do with devolution, the referendum talk is with us again.

This time, calls for a vote are being driven by the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) which believes the government of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto has taken a wrong turn in dealing with critical national issues.

CORD hurriedly crafted the referendum proposal after failing to arm-twist the Jubilee government into accepting a structured discussion over such issues as the growing insecurity, the future of the electoral commission, corruption, nepotism, and the high cost of living, among others. This week, CORD nominated a team of four experts to craft and formulate key referendum issues and to ensure the agenda will be consultative.

Let me say without batting an eyelid that, like the governors' attempt almost a year ago, CORD's initiative for a public vote will fail flat on its face, and this is why:-

First, Kenyans are unwilling to enter into a campaign mode a year and half after the hectic and acrimonious general elections of 2013. What the population wants is to be left alone to concentrate on making the best of its living environment. Given this obvious fact, few Kenyans will pay attention to the politics of referendum, making it an impossible task for the opposition to collect the one million signatures of genuinely registered voters as required by the constitution.

Second, Parliament will be the final decider on whether the country  goes to a referendum or not. At some point it will have to vote to accept or reject any referendum Bill brought before it. With the composition of the House, CORD cannot win a vote such as this in the National Assembly.

Third, the current budget does not have any fiscal provision for a plebiscite, which means, Parliament will only be able to allocate money for the exercise in the 2015/2016 budget, a herculean task given that the ruling coalition holds a majority in both houses.

Forth, it will take not less than two years to put together structures for a referendum, meaning that such an exercise - if everything else works - can only be held in 2016 at the earliest, a year before the general elections. It will be impossible for the electoral body to conduct the two polls so close together. Logistical, technical and administrative tasks necessary for such an exercise - as we saw in 2005 and 2010 - are complex and taxing, involving national mobilization, voter education, staff training and field preparations.

Finally, the referendum Bill will have to be approved by twenty-four assemblies in the fourty-seven counties. CORD is counting on twenty-four counties it theoretically controls to meet that requirement, but support in those areas cannot be guaranteed in view of the overall fragmentation in the opposition.

Therefore, it is my opinion that the four-person committee appointed by CORD to look into the matter has its work cut out. The proposed referendum is untenable. Instead of wasting time and putting Kenyans on a waiting mood for a decision, the committee should simply recommend that, given the above hurdles, the idea of a plebiscite is dead in the water.

And that is my say.