Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Issue-Based Campaigns the Way to Go

In many ways, the Kenyan political scene remains unchanged since the independence days. The party leader's opinion is still the de facto party position. Our political parties are still beholden to the whims of an individual, and the political landscape is littered with corpses of parties that collapsed with the exit of key leaders.

It is, however, refreshing to see a political party leader expressing his opinion in a newspaper commentary, indicating his stand on various issues affecting the country. In the absence of coherent political party manifestoes, this approach is all we currently have in terms of political party policies that are likely to be implemented should the party win the General Election.

In the recent past, the leader of the United Republican Party, William Ruto, has attempted to frame a debate that may potentially serve as a key issue in the coming elections. In one opinion article, he indicated that the constitutional referendum, in which he headed the "No" campaign, was not about being for or against the new Constitution.

In his opinion, everyone agreed that we needed a new Constitution, and that the then draft was an improvement on the Constitution that was then operational. In his view, everyone further agreed that there were flaws in the document that needed to be corrected in order to perfect it.

Only difference

He asserted that the only difference between the "Yes" and "No" camps was on the timing of the improvements, with the former holding the "Pass now, amend later" view while the latter wanted to "Amend first, then pass it".

Although the fundamental assumptions of this argument are open to debate, it is a useful way of encouraging constructive engagement in the run-up to the elections.

Those that disagree with this formulation should be encouraged to come up with their own views about what the referendum was all about, while those that agree with the basic assumptions can go ahead and discuss the aspects of the Constitution that need improvement.

Such a debate will be useful in several ways. First, it will ensure that leaders can be held to account on the basis of concrete statements they make, even after the elections. For instance, if those who think the Constitution was flawed win the election, they will be expected to initiate the necessary amendments to improve it. The expectation is that they will point out these flaws in advance, so that they too can become an election issue.

Second, an issue-based campaign may help the country to avoid focusing on less useful electoral decision-making tools such as tribe, race or gender. It should not matter whether it is one's tribesmate who makes a suggestion on how the Constitution should be treated, as long as one can interrogate the idea dispassionately and make their own decision.

Finally, concentrating on issues will encourage the engagement of professional think-tanks, resulting in a battle of minds rather than of might. No matter how crazy an idea sounds, as long as it is in the public sphere, it will stand or fall on its own merits, and not on the strength of its proposer.

Politics is meant to be a competition of ideas, where the best ideas, at least in the voters' collective imagination, prevail. Such competition will hopefully wean our country off our periodic electoral bloodlust for generations to come.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association and lecturer at Moi University's School of Medicine

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