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Win for ‘Yes’ camp brings political renewal to Kenya

By By Parselelo Kantai in Nairobi
Posted on Friday, 6 August 2010 12:49

In the Know features an interview, opinion or analysis on the events making the news in Africa each week.

The ghosts of post-election violence in 2007 were laid to rest on 4

August as Kenyans voted to endorse a new constitution

that devolves power to the local level.

Thousands of Kenyans headed to downtown Nairobi on 5 August for an impromptu rally to celebrate a resounding 70% win for the ‘yes’ campaign in Kenya’s referendum on a new constitution.

Talk is of renewal and new beginnings. Voters have found new faith in the electoral process, praising the interim electoral commission for delivering results professionally and quickly within 48 hours of the 4 August poll.

The campaign was calculated and perceived as a dress rehearsal for the 2012 national elections. Amid fierce debate, the constitution-makers produced a good and positive document. The ‘yes’ ushers in a new constitution with far-reaching political reforms such as a more independent judiciary, a strong bill of rights – including women’s rights – and the provision of a process to impeach the president.

Ministers will no longer be appointed from within parliament. This American-style executive has its potential drawbacks, but it means an end to pork-barrel politics at the national level. The direction is towards a devolved democracy. Every county will now be run by an elected governor, with regional development held accountable by the people. Ethnic identity can now be compatible with a wider Kenyan national identity.

Post-referendum politics will retreat to the local level. The new constitution makes it extremely unattractive to seek high office. Anyone running for the presidency in 2012 must relinquish their parliamentary seat and pick a running mate before they run. Lose, and they will be out of the game for five years.

If there is an irony here, it has been lost in all the jostling, lies and name-calling that characterised the two-and-a-half months of campaigning. Rival politicians were quick to read Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s full-throated endorsement of the draft constitution as an attempt to position himself at the head of the pack racing towards the presidency in 2012. Whether or not they are correct, it may be a miscalculation of the perceived power and prestige that the post-2012 president will possess. Under the new constitution, there will be more checks and balances on the president, but no strong prime minister or dual executive, as many were demanding.

Odinga’s rivals within the ‘yes’ camp – President Mwai Kibaki’s putative successors, including Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka and Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta – were less than lukewarm in their support for the draft. Their reluctance to give full voice to the campaign also has much to do with their own calculations for 2012.

Higher Education Minister William Ruto, who doggedly led opposition to constitutional reform and the ‘no’ campaign, had to put on a brave fact and grudgingly accept the results on 5 August. He called it a “minority” endorsement, arguing that with 60% voter turnout, and 30% of those who did vote choosing ‘no’, then 70% of the electorate either did not comment or rejected the constitution. He is calling for consultations to continue on contentious issues.

The campaign has helped Ruto carve out a niche for himself as an

independent leader on the national level. How he fares may well be

influenced by the report of the International Criminal Court on Kenya’s

2007 post-election violence, due later this year. Accusations linking

him to the perpetrators of political violence have damaged his profile,

but hard evidence has yet to be produced.

The Rift Valley was the only province to vote strongly against the new constitution, with voters suspicious of land reform in the region that saw the worst of the post-election violence in 2007. But there was no trouble this time around.

Kenya’s churches – who came about strongly with the ‘no’ camp – questioned the validity of the result. But they have been the biggest losers and their credibility and leadership now lies in tatters.