Kenyan political parties are unstable. Since 2002, each election year produces a new political ruling party. In 2002, the late president Mwai Kibaki was placed into office under the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). In 2007, the Party of National Unity (PNU) emerged victorious and, in 2013, The National Alliance (TNA) party and the United Republican Party (URP) coalition emerged as the winner of the elections. In 2017, the Jubilee party, which was a merger of URP and TNA, emerged as the winner of the elections. As such, regardless of the outcome of the 2022 election, there will be a new political party in government. This trend places Kenya’s political party organization and functioning in a category classified as unstable political formations.
The nature of Kenyan politics is that political parties are organized around ethnic kingpins who marshal their ethnic communities to propel themselves to national leadership. It is because of this that many political parties often have strength in one part of the country. The Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party is dominated by the Luo ethnic group, the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) is dominated by the Kalenjin, the African National Congress (ANC) is dominated by Luhya, the Wiper party is dominated by Kamba, and Ford Kenya by Luhya, among others. The underlying strength of these parties is an articulation of interests of regions where supporters of these parties come from. The parties are often supported by opinion leaders, elders, rich business people, religious leaders, and all manner of stakeholders from those regions, making them vehicles for the articulation of local interest at the national level. Those who often go against ethnic kingpins usually fall by the wayside because kingpins dictate who is to become governor, senator, Women Representative, Member of Parliament (MP), and Member of County Assembly (MCA).
Besides the party nomination fee, which is official, many of the candidates spend more money by promising to sponsor the campaigns of the kingpins and they have to be seen paying loyalty to the kingpins and their desires. Support by the kingpins almost always guarantees one electoral victory. For example, the current ODM and UDA nominees for governor, senator, Women Representative, MP, and MCA are likely to win in their strongholds. This scenario makes political parties vulnerable to influence and makes them unstable instruments for democracy. It is for this reason that massive investment has been made by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in party development in Africa and other parts of the world. The performance of political parties in Kenya suggests that the massive investments placed in the political parties by internal and external stakeholders are not bearing sufficient dividends.
The 2022 elections in Kenya have two clear front runners: the Azimio One Kenya Alliance led by Raila Amolo Odinga and the Kenya Kwanza Alliance led by Dr. William Samoei Ruto. The Azimio One Kenya Alliance is a coalition that presents ODM with a stronghold in Luo Nyanza, the Jubilee party with strong backing from central Kenya, and the Wiper party in the lower eastern region among the Kamba and other political entities. The understanding is that the various kingpins will deliver votes and they include Ali Hassan Joho from the coast, Martha Karua from the central region, Wycliffe Ambetsa Oparanya from the western region, and Wafula Wamunyinyi from Bungoma, among others.
The challenge many parties face is to convince the kingpins that their interests will be taken care of after elections. Often the process involves pre-election negotiations in which positions are shared out. In the current dispensations, Azimio One Kenya Alliance leader Raila Amolo has promised to make Kalonzo Musyoka the Kamba kingpin and the chief minister in case he forms the next government. Martha Karua, who is a Kikuyu, has been promised the position of Deputy President and Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs. Ali Hassan Joho has been promised Minister for Lands, Wycliffe Oparanya has been promised Minister of Finance, and Peter Munya, who is Meru, has been promised Minister for Agriculture, among others. The same scenario of promises is also playing out in the UDA camp. The assumption is that the kingpins will influence government policy in the distribution of resources for development. There is a new gender dimension that can be attributed to the inclusion of Martha Karua as a running mate to Raila Odinga. The hope is that this will help galvanize women to support the Azimio alliance into victory.
Political parties in Kenya lack any coherent ideology. Most of them tend to oscillate around a powerful individual who is often assumed to be the funder and sponsor of the activities of the political party. The party development and growth are often linked to the welfare and success of the party leader. Some parties have been known to decline and even peter out with the political exit of their founders. For example, The Kenya African National Union (KANU) declined from its prominent position when the party leader, Mzee Moi, retired from politics. The Party of National Unity (PNU) similarly lost its shine when president Mwai Kibaki retired from politics. Many other parties have followed this trajectory.
External actors often play an important role in Kenyan political parties. Many of them also receive advisory and material support from internal and external stakeholders. For example, KANU enjoyed a great deal of support from conservative think tanks in the USA and many parts of Europe. Many of these think tanks were Christian social democrats in Germany, Sweden, and other parts of the world. The ODM party is also reported to enjoy support from many liberal think tanks in the USA and Europe. They give them ideas, funding, expertise, and advisors for the preparation of manifestos and policies. Due to massive investments in Kenya by foreign companies from the US, Europe, and Asia, many governments from the West and the East have tremendous interest in the outcome of the 2022 Kenyan elections.
In conclusion, the political parties in Kenya are still developing, are still captive to forces of identity politics, personalization, and lack ideology. It is everyone’s hope that as Kenya and the wider region become more democratic, political party culture is established, and parties become more stable in relation to their formation and functions.