Why Kenya should delink civic elections

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BY DANCAN MUHINDI

The Kenyan Parliament is set to start deliberations later this year on critical reforms in the management of local authorities. The Minister for Local Government Musalia Mudavadi is expected to present a raft of proposals aimed at amending the archaic Local Government Act cap 265, to reflect modern realities. As citizens, we hope that these reforms will be far-reaching and beneficial in terms of service delivery and competence in our city, municipal and county councils.

There has been overwhelming popularity with the idea of amending the Local Government Act to allow direct elections of Mayors by voters. Although this marks a wonderful start to the reform efforts, I fear it may not go far enough if positions of ordinary Councillors are left unreformed in the process.

The reputation of Councillors in many of our local authorities continues to suffer due to their infamous fights, widespread allegations of corruption, lack of managerial competence and low levels of education. This is hardly the stuff that befits policy makers in modern urban management. We need a thorough reform of these positions to make them more responsive to voters’ needs in a 21st century Kenya.

Besides having direct elections of Mayors and Council Chairmen, it’s high time we delinked civic elections from the general elections. I have in mind the holding of civic elections one year before parliamentary and presidential polls.

My submission is that we can find credible people to elect, if we de-link completely the civic elections from the Parliamentary and Presidential elections. What I have in mind is a system where for example, we elect Councillors in 2011 while MPs and the President are elected in 2012. We could repeat this again in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

Benefits of de-linking elections

This separation will encourage the media to focus on aspiring civic leaders and hence enlighten voters to make informed choices. Under this scenario, it will be possible to hold debates to gauge the competence of aspiring Councillors.

More important, this approach would ensure that hooligans and goons who have nothing credible to offer voters at the council level, don’t get a chance to hide behind a Kibaki, Raila or Kalonzo election euphoria as happened in the 2007 elections. They would have to face the voters on their own merit.

Voters would also be compelled to scrutinize whom they vote for in such an election. After all, you are only voting for a Councillor and no one else!

De-linking civic elections will also help combat apathy in the election process at this level and encourage voter participation and interaction with their candidates. This way, the chances of electing more credible civic leaders increases dramatically. I have faith that voters can make the right choices given an open and enabling environment.

Despite the extra costs of holding two separate elections within two years, the benefits in terms of quality leadership and service delivery to Kenyans would simply be mind-boggling. I submit that the impact would not only be felt at the grass root level, but ultimately at the national level.

As things are today, many voters simply elect the fellow who happens to be in the party where their favourite presidential candidate belongs, without any consideration to merit or ability. This is done using the “3-piece” voting formula where voters elect a President, MP and Councillor from the same party without much scrutiny. Indeed, this is the reason many Nairobi voters cannot tell you the name of the Councillor they elected in December 2007!

Conclusion

Experience from other established democracies shows that staggered elections could indeed be successful in strengthening local authorities. For example in the United Kingdom, local government elections follow a four-year cycle, while the parliamentary cycle is five years.

The United States of America conducts its local elections every two years, and during the Presidential mid-term cycle. In France, municipal elections for city Mayors and Councillors are held every six years while legislative and presidential elections are held every five years.

Closer home in Tanzania, civic elections will be held countrywide next month while the parliamentary ones will be held next year. In South Africa, municipal elections are held every five years, in a separate year from the general elections. The last elections to elect the members of the district, metropolitan and local municipal councils were held in 2006 with the next ones slotted for 2011. Earlier this year, Jacob Zuma was elected the country’s President in the parliamentary elections that have taken place every five years since 1994.

For quality grassroots leadership to emerge firmly in Kenya, its imperative that we get the foundation right – we must reform our local authorities as a matter of urgency. The current reform initiative offers a wonderful opportunity to do this.

(Dancan Muhindi is the Communications Officer, Financial Sector Deepening Trust)

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