Ideas & Debate

Sober debate key to understanding party manifestos

Initial responses by economic commentators to the Jubilee and Nasa manifestos were surprisingly bleak. Neither platform offers fresh ideas. file photo | nmg
Initial responses by economic commentators to the Jubilee and Nasa manifestos were surprisingly bleak. Neither platform offers fresh ideas. file photo | nmg  

Observing our noisy pre-election campaign trail, especially the increasingly do-or-die presidential contest, it is tempting to conclude that if Kenya were a child, Jubilee sounds like the aggressive parent obsessed with buying the kid expensive toys and gadgets, while Nasa portrays itself as the parent concerned with the kid’s basic needs — food, water, health, shelter, even dignity.

Do not be fooled by recent distractions about cartels, both parents want our love and attention — badly. This is a harsh indictment of the winner takes all nature of our political contestation. Yet, accepting that politics is “the battle over who gets to do what”, it is disappointing that campaign language is all about personalities and identity, with little room for issues and ideas.

One wonders why campaign tacticians on both sides of the main political divide find it so difficult to consistently localise their messages around real citizens and their needs, rather than glitzy projects and fancy promises.

Last week, we had a new moment to speak to issues and ideas. Jubilee and Nasa launched their manifestos as did Third Way Alliance. Despite recent withdrawals, one hopes for vibrant presidential debates around these, and other, manifestos (plus Jubilee’s performance record) from July 10.

While there is a sound argument that most voters are already decided, this structured debate offers a decision opportunity to those undecided voters, who are unwilling or unable to attend heated campaign rallies during working hours. After all, isn’t Kenya a working nation?

Initial responses by economic commentators to the Jubilee and Nasa manifestos were surprisingly bleak. Neither platform offers fresh ideas.

The promises are too similar; the major suspects the same — the economy, public spending, jobs, agriculture, industry, corruption, services, tourism, infrastructure, even corruption.

Accusations around who copied whom soon filtered into the campaign trail.

An initial glance appears to confirm this fact in a nuanced sense. The pro-business political enterprise that is Jubilee presents its manifesto with pro-people language. The pro-poor political agglomeration that is Nasa articulates its economic proposals with pro-markets language.

In short, going back to our opening analogy, Jubilee attempts to present its promise for more mega-development with a human face, while Nasa seeks to demonstrate an understanding that production is as important as distribution. Yet therein lies the subtle difference. The former speaks to a pro-business state, while the latter speaks to a pro-markets nation-state.

To be clear — as renowned economists Dani Rodrik & Arvind Subramanian noted in their book, From Hindu Growth to Productivity Surge: The Mystery of the Indian Growth Transition, “a pro-market strategy supports new entrants and consumers, a pro-business strategy mainly supports established producers”.

Understanding this difference is central to distinguishing Jubilee from Nasa.

This difference is evident in the Jubilee “project” vs Nasa “policy” proposals. By example, although both make around 60 pledges and commitments on the economy, the former proposes a one county one product programme across all counties, while the latter speaks to region and sector specific initiatives around areas as diverse as mixed farming in the west of Kenya, or industrial parks within each ward.

Indeed, if these two manifestos were properly debated, as they should be, the same subtle differences are observable in the social sector.

Jubilee’s free day secondary education pledge appears premised on a construction binge between now and January 2018, while Nasa’s similar promise is actually about a stepwise approach that immediately focuses on reduced attrition — school dropouts, while progressively expanding infrastructure and teacher training capacity over the next five years.

Equally, on health, universal health care means expansion of the not-inexpensive National Hospital Insurance Fund scheme for Jubilee, but for Nasa refers to a Universal Health Service Fund — modelled on Makueni County’s successful pro-poor health scheme. Simply, the devil is in the detail.

Where am I going with this? Our endless rush for “sound bites” has, by focusing on the campaign noise in the field, prevented an objective look at the promises that our potential leaders are making, yet now seem reluctant to publicly debate between each other.

In this underwhelming time of obsessive identity politics, it would still be great to better understand not just if the manifesto promises are really achievable, but if Jubilee’s are sustainable, or Nasa’s are implementable.