The decision by the Jubilee Party on 12th May to change its party leadership in the Senate may have caught some by surprise, but it was a culmination of several months of tensions and intrigues within the party. The pomp with which the party was launched in the run up to the 2017 elections had been replaced with war and open public spats.
The dispute is in court and thus its merits will be subject to ventilation and determination by the judicial process. However, it raises several issues about our politics and party governance. At the centre of the emerging concerns is the place of political parties in the country’s democratic consolidation and what their status in the country is.
Since the the Political Parties Act came into force in 2008, several legislative and institutional measures have been put in place to institutionalise and democratise parties and their operations. The office of the Registrar of Political Parties was created and a registrar appointed to register and regulate the activities of parties.
In addition, those parties that meet a threshold set by the law are entitled to and do get public funds to enable them to run their affairs. These measures are intended to enhance the conduct of parties as public institutions and avoid being controlled by a few individuals.
The 2010 Constitution reaffirmed the necessity of those measures and elevated the place of political parties to constitutional institutions. Against this above background, it is important to assess the health of political parties and the ongoing activities within the Jubilee Party.
While it is true that the country’s political landscape and the management of political parties has improved, there are still some lingering bad practices from the past. In terms of improvement, there is a plurality of options for Kenyans to choose from in terms of political parties.
The ideal that Kenya is a multi-party democracy is consequently given meaning by the existence of many parties. The question that needs to be answered is the extent to which all the existing parties are democratic and support democratic governance. Unlike in the past, it is easier to access the political parties. One has information not just about their registered office but can trace and visit their headquarters thus making them operational entities. There may be an argument about numbers, but the Registrar of Political Parties keeps a register of the members of all political parties in addition to that with the parties themselves.
Therefore, all registered parties have members ensuring that they are no longer briefcase entities belonging to a few people.
However, the greatest challenge remains internal democracy and discipline. Every political party must have rules than all who choose to join it subscribe to and commit to operate under. This is what enables the party to conduct its business in an objective and democratic manner.
Unfortunately, invariably there is a penchant of treating politics as a game with no rules, where everything goes and might equals right. It is seen as a space for intrigues, denial of what one did and said, mischief and backstabbing. Watching the events surrounding the replacement of the Majority Leader in the Senate last week, all these descriptions come into play.
The ensuing question is who is in the wrong. Both sides of the contest in the above case will blame the other for the developments. They may have a point. There is none who is innocent in the contestation and in disregarding the rules, structures, and processes that they had agreed upon as a party. This should be the larger lesson not just for the political class, but also the entire populace.
It is important that the decision to move political parties from being purely private members’ clubs to public institutions governed by constitutional standards, clear rules and an oversight agency in the form of the office of the Registrar of Political Parties was out of the recognition of their importance to our politics and governance.
This requires a shift to how we form, manage and deal with our political parties. Members must stop treating parties casually. Every institution requires to be governed by rules. Those rules must be known to all and respected. If a member deliberately and frequently disregards the rules of the political party, they cannot expect that institution to continue existing in the form and shape that they envisioned.
Party discipline is, consequently, a fundamental component of the management of all mature and democratic political parties across the world. Members take their belonging seriously, promote the ideals of their party and do not seek to undermine it. To do otherwise undermines the very institution that they voluntarily chose to be party to.
The flip side is party democracy. The leadership of the party too must operate within the dictates of the Party Constitution and other governing protocols. This is not out of good manners but in compliance with the recognition that parties are public institutions, governed by the rules of the country and thus subject to the principles of the rule of law.
Recognizing the above two balances by all players in the country’s politics will help ensure that parties paly their roles in society more effectively. It requires that all members of political parties stop treating the institution casually and viewing it as a vehicle to board and alight from at will, as one senior politician once quipped.