Friday, April 27, 2007

Once an incumbent, always an incumbent!

Once an incumbent, always an incumbent!

“Lang’ata MP, Mr Raila Odinga, has spoken of the awesome power of incumbency and the dangers of a splintered Opposition, and sent out a fresh plea for unity in ODM-Kenya”. Not many people, especially in his camp, seem to have paid attention to these words which were carried in one of the Kenyan dailies yesterday but they may just hold the secret weapon that will propel President Kibaki back to power.

The flurry of interest, activity and excitement surrounding the 2007 General elections in Kenya is no accident. Almost every constituency is burning and sparks are gonna fly fire, so be prepared. Everyone who follows politics keenly understands the innumerable advantages that incumbency bestows. The power of incumbency is related in no small way to political parties. Conventionally, the power of incumbency has been embedded in the immeasurable fund-raising opportunities, the open media attention and the name recognition that attaches to the president, his ministers and members of parliament. Incumbency is an important barrier facing women because most incumbents are men.In short, incumbency matters a great deal, and the advantage incumbency affords make it difficult for a possibility of widespread defeat for incumbents.

Name recognition is a major factor in being re-elected over and over again. No wonder nepotism has always been alive and well in Kenyan politics. Certain names are associated with wealth and power thus defeating them in any political contest is always a gigantic task. Betting on the re-election of a sitting elected official is like putting money in the bank. That is simply a fact of life in Kenyan politics. The only question is why that happens and what, if anything, can or should be done about it. In many constituencies this year, incumbency remains a powerful force. The current legislators have had an advantage that many of their predecessors did not have. Their fat pay checks enabled them to criss-cross their constituencies bestowing favors on the voters and participating in development project initiatives on a level that has never been witnessed in the past.

In fairness we would have loved to declare that all of the participants in this epic struggle for power in the Kenya are citizens who believe that their strategies and tactics for claiming and holding political power are in the best interests of the nation. We would love to say that even when the ideological divide between the two main factions in this year’s elections become rancorous and divisive, this power struggle will be a debate than a war. Unfortunately, history shows that political debates in Kenya have produced great enmity from time to time on both sides. Enmity has escalated to nasty political tactics and various low-end shenanigans in some cases.

In order to better understand the political game – as in game theory not idle entertainment – we need to know well who the opposing players are in the 2007 elections. Unfortunately, there is no absolute dividing line between the opposing sides. In fact we find some politicos playing both sides of the debate as it suits their personal ambitions. In the main though there are two opposing sides, which can be defined by the ideas, issues and candidates, they support. For most activists and hacks the two factions vying for power are ODM-Kenya and Narc-Kenya. However, there are many identifying characteristics of personalities in both groups which makes it almost impossible to distinguish one group from the other. Both incumbents and aspiring candidates are running with political baggage. Again this serves to the advantage of the incumbent since there is nothing unique or new that one can point out on the opposition side.

Unseating an incumbent requires money, name recognition and deals with local leaders, and often a helping hand from local government officials. Very few of the aspiring opposition contestants this year have strong legislative records and numerous political alliances like the incumbents thus the path to victory will be tougher for them.

Unlike in 2002 when the battle cry for many local Council, parliamentary and even presidential challengers was for reform and change, for fresh faces and new beginnings, the opposition today faces a sitting president who has managed to play his cards safely thus avoiding unnecessary negative politicking. He has also worked hard to steer the country’s economy a step higher than it was when he took over the leadership of the country. Coupled with the fact that the opposition is made up of people with tainted backgrounds, one can almost certainly believe Raila’s words that unseating President Kibaki is going to be a HUGE challenge to the current shaky opposition which is held together not by ideology but by the thirst to grab power and either safeguard their ill-gotten loot or have the opportunity to loot and amass wealth for themselves.

One prayer that the opposition can bank on is that President Kibaki and his lieutenants may rest on their oars thinking that power of incumbency will do the magic for them at the general elections.

So what solution does Raila and his colleagues have? In the perspective of political marketing, an election campaign consists of three phases: exploration of the political demand, creation of the political offer, promotion of the offer. Despite the different contexts in each constituency and in each election year, are there strategies that could be shared by all aspiring challengers?

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