Ideas & Debate

MPs must push for pre-election fiscal update

Parliament building in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Parliament building in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

When Kenyans voted by a super-majority for a new Constitution, citizens made three heroic electoral assumptions.

That our votes would represent real choices between parties of ideology, and there would be firm adherence to the official campaign period within strict campaign financing limits. That’s just not the way our politics works.

This probably isn’t peculiarly Kenyan. Although the recent election of centrist Emmanuel Macron as France’s next President brought relief among global observers in an increasingly uncertain ‘Trump-Brexit’ world, most striking was the lack of representation by country’s traditional left and right-wing parties in the second round poll.

So — as in Trump-Brexit— was this a win “for the people”? Is the traditional left-right ideological divide in national politics dead? Is “populism” the new “party” in a world of social media-led “resistance movements” influenced by alternative facts?

Or is this “elite capture” of the State disguised as a popular revolt against globalisation?

Further in a post-Brexit context, what would one make of the UK Labour Party’s manifesto for their forthcoming election?

As one headline from this week’s The Economist notes, “the Labour Party raises the bar on electoral suicide notes” as it observes with dismay “commitments to nationalise the Royal Mail, energy, rail and water companies”. It quips that party leader Jeremy Corbyn “tries to prove there is a socialist policy for everything.”

By extreme example, pledging “to prohibit the third-party sale of puppies” (think policy on puppy-farming). Or, in their accompanying tax-and-spend document titled Funding Britain’s Future proposing an excessive pay levy (for the overpaid), an offshore company property levy and stamp duty on derivatives. Wild and courageous? Definitely. Election-winning? Never.

That’s the consensus among experts and observers reflecting on the historical experience that ordinary people vote for those most likely to implement what they promise, rather than those with “out-of-the-box” ideas on policy.

Yet the manifesto is a fascinating read — all Karl Marx. Back to Kenya, where any reference by politicians to Karl Marx recalls the repressive period in our history when everything unfamiliar was the enemy.

With no campaign financing limits, and the official campaign timeline from May 28 to August 5 all but ignored, one wonders what sort of manifestos will be presented to Kenyans. Actually, the right question should be what use Kenyans have for the different manifestos.

Let’s place this question in context. On the one hand, we have a Jubilee administration proclaiming achievements and asking for more time to complete its outstanding work.

On the other, we have a Nasa opposition questioning these achievements, bemoaning the lack of inclusion and making hay around the bread and butter issues.

The height of these contrasts came to the fore in a week in which we learnt that Kenya is seeking a Sh370 billion loan from China to extend the Standard Gauge Railway from Naivasha to Kisumu even as total public debt has surpassed the Sh4 trillion mark; all amid growing public unrest around maize (and unga or maize meal)), sugar and milk prices.

Today, we’re talking Sh6 billion in new tax expenditures to millers as the cost of subsidised unga, not actual maize. With the government now mulling over sugar and milk prices, who needs a manifesto, or a budget, when public management consists of emergency actions? Equally, who needs policy or plans if debt continues to rise faster than actual GDP?

And from these debt-related perspectives – because the only other way to afford the unga subsidy is to cut down on service delivery or county allocations, what do these and other post-budget decisions mean for Kenya’s economic and fiscal outlook?

Parliament, fortunately, has an opportunity to ask these questions before its indefinite adjournment on June 15 through the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Update that the National Treasury is required to publish under the Public Finance Management Act.

While this update ostensibly focuses on projected election-related spending, including the cost of security forces, it should be accompanied by a statement on, first, all policy decisions with material economic and fiscal implications since the National Budget was read, and, second, all other circumstances, including emerging risks.

As we head into an election in which manifestos may count for little, Parliament’s final task must be to assure Kenyans that this isn’t 2007, but isn’t 1992 either.