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Jubilee Set to Win Kenyan Referendum Battle
Jubilee Winning Referendum War
As the days go by, the threat posed to the ruling Jubilee Coalition in Kenya by veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Cord Coalition is diminishing. The threat is in the form of a demand to hold a referendum to change the constitution. If successful, the referendum would boost Raila’s political standing ahead of the 2017 general election. Though the threat is relatively new; it only started a couple of months ago when Raila’s supporters thronged him with “while you were away” messages on his return from the US; it is already going the way of previous threats against Jubilee: down. Since it was voted into power in early 2013, the Jubilee government has skipped loop after dangerous loop, in the concerted effort to remain in power.
Jubilee leaders, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, were always bound to have a rollercoaster on the throne. Even before they started the Presidential campaign, they had both been summoned by the International Criminal Court at The Hague, on charges of bearing the greatest responsibility for the ethnic cleansing in the country of 2007-8. Their individual cases are still going on and all that can be said non sub- judice is that they are happier with the progress now than when the cases first started. Many believe that the Jubilee coalition was born out of the joint fate that faced these two at The Hague.
Talking of cases, no sooner had the Electoral Commission declared them election winners, than, guess who, their nemesis Raila drugged them before the Supreme Court accusing them of cheating in the election. The case, thanks to the 2010 constitution, only drugged on for less than a week, before the court gave Jubilee the all clear.
Another hurdle that they had to face in the run-up to their historic election is the West. Diplomatic murmurs from Washington and other quarters warned Kenyan voters that choices have consequences. The popular interpretation of this was that electing the two would be viewed unfavorably by the western powers since the two were suspects at The Hague. There was soon a drying up of different forms of aid to Kenya and numerous travel advisories for tourists aiming to visit the country. Whereas these advisories were given in due consideration that there were terrorist threats to Kenya, and western tourists could be caught in the storm, there was an over dramatization of sorts when Britain actually pulled out several tourists from their cozy beach hotels in Mombasa.
As fate would have it, it was actually a terrorist attack in Kenya that softened the tough stance of the West somewhat. They were Al-Shabaab terrorists from Somalia, who casually walked into a shopping mall in downtown Nairobi and dispatched 67 high-end shoppers and employees to their maker. Their weapons of choice were AK-47s and hand grenades. Since then President Kenyatta has participated in a high profile summit in the US to which he was officially invited. Moreover, the US recently dispatched Al Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane to the very same maker.
Referendum Demand Waning
Now, mutatis mutandis, the recent declaration by Raila that he wants a referendum on the constitution, is going the way of the other hurdles the Jubilee duo have overcome. The duo are opposed to a referendum on the grounds that there is nothing other than empty political rhetoric in the demand for it by CORD. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that the demand has no clear objective, and as journalists have been pointing out time and again, no referendum question yet. It is also not lost on members of the public, and the Jubilee government has never failed to remind them, that the same Raila went all out to campaign for the adoption of the same constitution than he now demands to change just over four years later. During that campaign, Mr Kenyattta had been accused of being a “watermelon” red on the inside and green on the outside. Red meant no and green meant yes in the campaign. Mr. Ruto on the other hand had come out openly to oppose the passage of the document.
Now roles have been reversed and it is the two Jubilee gentlemen who are defending the constitution while Raila wants it amended. The gist of Raila’s argument is that more money should be devolved to the counties, in the new American style federal system that the country is currently implementing. The constitution says at least 15% of the national revenue is to be devolved to these units, while the Jubilee claims that they have gone out of their way to actually devolve some 40% to the units out of their own magnanimity. CORD does not want to proceed on magnanimity, they want it entrenched in the constitution that 45% be devolved.
The Referendum Crumbling Campaign
This argument by CORD is uncannily similar to that by the Council of County Governors, who want a similar referendum for a similar reason, provided that they do not join forces with CORD. Though CORD has suddenly narrowed down its calls for the referendum to this one issue, they started on a much broader and confused state. Their initial demands were for improvement of the security situation in the country [the mall attack was just the most prominent of numerous terrorist attacks that happened], a lower cost of living for the citizens, among another plethora of issues. How changing the constitution was going to dissuade terrorists hell-bent on killing Kenyans, never quite came out. This initial lack of focus, there were fourteen issues in all, was the first undoing for the CORD campaign.
The second big problem is that, as earlier mentioned, CORD is yet to come up with a referendum question despite severe criticism. It is clear that they still do not know how to formulate a question that will capture the essence of all their desires. In fact, all indications are that they will latch onto the clear plebiscite question already structured by the Governors: Do you want 45% of the national revenue to be devolved to the counties? Yes. No. That is the message even if it is not in those exact words. The biggest problem with anchoring their drive on that of the Governors is that the latter may cut a funding deal with the central government and abandon the referendum campaign altogether. That would leave CORD completely exposed seeing as they do not even have a referendum question of their own.
Another home truth that has just dawned on the CORD brigade is that the referendum crusade may take a lot longer than they first bargained for. The process of approvals by different institutions including the County Assemblies and the National Assembly will drag on for ages. The earliest that plebiscite can be held, if it successfully sails through these stages, is 2016. It goes without saying that the government will be waiting to throw a spanner in the works at every stage, thus dragging out the process further.
If the demand doesn't die along the way then the referendum may be held, just one year before the general elections. That is, if the electoral commission says it has enough money to conduct it. That is where it gets interesting. The electoral commission will need the money from the government to fund the referendum; the government is opposed to the referendum. The electoral commission has no sympathy for the referendum either; one of the CORD demands is for the commission to be disbanded never to preside over another election, for allegedly bungling the 2013 exercise, for which CORD went to court. The budget allowing referendum funding will have to be approved by the National Assembly; Jubilee commands the majority in the National Assembly.
CORD's Veteran Politicians
CORD may handle all this successfully, after all it is made up of veteran politicians. However, the biggest threat to its campaign so far is actually not the Jubilee government, formidable an opponent as it is. The biggest threat in fact is the attitude of die hard CORD followers who constitute about half of the Kenyan population. There is just no excitement among the Raila adherents. They do not seem to be discussing the referendum. Many of them quietly disapprove of the drive while they thank God for the little mercies that the new constitution has delivered so far. In some counties, a tarmac road is being constructed for the first time ever. In others, medicine has miraculously appeared in hospitals after many years of absence.
There is a clear disconnect between what Raila says the constitutional amendment will provide and what the people actually believe. A recent opinion poll by Ipsos Synovate showed that only a minority actually supported the referendum drive. It is easy to see what is missing from this campaign. Raila is a highly charismatic politician who moves the masses with his electric speeches and flamboyant style. Usually, when he is involved in any campaign, it is the talk of the town in whichever corner of Kenya you go to. Currently, that electric atmosphere is completely absent, as his supporters and haters are systematically losing interest in the drive. That is what will finish off the plebiscite demand. Raila cannot stand the cold shoulder from the public. He can deal very well with the Jubilee shenanigans, but not public indifference. His long success as a politician has always depended on his populist approach to issues. Without it, he just can’t function properly.
In any case, some of the elected leaders of his party, including Governors, Senators and members of The National Assembly, have told him in no uncertain terms that they do not support the campaign. Even those who have not spoken have given the campaign a wide berth. Those who agree with him, no matter what, are exhibiting a body language that does not reflect enthusiasm.
So like the battles Jubilee has won in the past, they are poised to win this one.