Kenya’s president signed a controversial bill into law on Thursday which changes the way political parties function and can field candidates.
The amendment of a former law tweaks old legislation which stated that candidates must belong to a specific party or be independent.
The move is seen as a boon for Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta and his rival-turned-sidekick Raila Odinga who will compete in the 2022 election for a fifth time and use the new rules to build a formidable cross-party coalition.
Deputy president William Ruto, the main opponent to the Kenyatta-backed camp, fiercely opposed the Political Parties Amendment Bill as it will help Odinga draw deep support from multiple regions and ethnic groups.
The bill was so contentious that it led to a brawl in Kenya’s parliament in December, with at least two rival MPs filmed exchanging blows and one lawmaker emerging with a black eye.
Kenyatta defends the amendment as “aimed at strengthening management of political parties and enhancing democracy”.
Raising the stakes
The amendment adds to recent but lengthy political wrangling between Ruto and Kenyatta who started out as allies but have since turned into foes after the president moved closer to Odinga in what has become known as “the handshake”.
Despite Ruto and Kenyatta belonging to the same ruling Jubilee Party, the two camps are set for a ferocious race in the upcoming election as Kenyatta comes to the end of his second term.
Javas Bigambo, a Kenyan-based lawyer, says that the bill will allow smaller political parties to throw their weight behind Odinga, strengthening the veteran politician’s base. It does this by providing a stronger legal framework for coalition parties to be formed that had not existed under the old law.
Coalition parties have been a fixture of the last two elections but complaints abound over the structure, organisation and funding of the political groupings that were often hastily assembled in pursuit of short-term agenda.
“Because of the various fringe parties that were inclined to go with Odinga but have feared to do so, coming up with a foundation and fundamental changes in the statute will protect the interest of these coalition parties,” says Bigambo.
He adds that Odinga now has a bigger mandate to drum up far-reaching support due to his broad political base garnered over a life-time in Kenyan politics.
“This is his fifth time running. Odinga has friends and a presence in various parts of the country as a potential candidate compared to Ruto who will test his popularity and appeal for the first time in the election,” he says.
Faced with a cross-party coalition Ruto, who had been running on a more individual platform, will be obliged to set up his own coalition to contest in the race.
The deputy president is viewed as more of a populist candidate who can shake-up dynastic ruling families like the Odingas and Kenyattas, who represent Kenya’s establishment.
“For Ruto to go to the election without a coalition would be his greatest downfall,” says Bigambo.
“For the past two elections it is obvious that coalition building creates a sense of nationalist identity and demonstrates regional representation by way of coalition forming.”
A strong presence of coalitions and considerable changes to the laws governing elections reduces the risk of a repeat of 2007-2008 election violence where more than 1,000 people were killed in days of unrest, Bigambo believes.