Let's democratise selection of running mate

Azimio panel

From left: Azimio advisory panel members Michael Orwa, Elizabeth Meyo, Paul Mwangi and Enoch Wambua during their inaugural meeting at the secretariat’s offices on May 4, 2022.

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

You often have to think against the box – not outside of it – to grow an emerging democracy. They say it’s little droplets of water that make a mighty ocean. Democracy is forged one hard inch by another hard inch. It’s never achieved in miles at a stretch. And there are usually reversals in between.

That’s because democracy is a continuous experiment, not a final destination. It’s the reason introducing the tradition of publicly vetting nominees for Deputy President of the Republic is a small step but a giant leap in Kenya’s political culture. That’s how you expand, deepen and entrench democracy in the psyches of both the hoi polloi and the elite. Let me extrapolate and elucidate.

Azimio la Umoja One Kenya presidential candidate Raila Odinga has become the first to introduce the public vetting of DP nominees in Kenya. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Mr Odinga. He has often gone where others haven’t gone before. And he’s done it all in pursuit of a democratic and prosperous Kenya. More than any other living Kenyan, he’s paid a heavy personal price for his courage. He’s been detained, jailed, physically beaten and exiled. I find it shocking that he doesn’t have a bone of bitterness in his body. I am not sure I would be so forgiving. He holds not a single grudge against those who’ve wronged him. He’s truly at peace, having forgiven them all.

Mr Odinga’s towering achievements in Kenya’s political culture include his relentless leadership for the 2010 Constitution, which democratised the state, dispersed political power from the executive to other arms of the state and to the people in counties, and brought more scrutiny, accountability and transparency to governance. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he’s done more to bring democracy than any other person. That’s why it came as no surprise when he instituted a committee to publicly recommend candidates for running mate. Like every novel idea that seeks to unfreeze hierarchies of power, the idea attracted enormous support, and some opposition. The entire country was bathed in excitement. The public and the media couldn’t get enough.

Democracy is a consequentialist system in the sense that its outcome has real-world repercussions for actual, living human beings. So, the results of the democratic franchise are extremely important. Who you elect and what policies they implement are critical. Even more important is the process of democracy itself. That’s because democracy is a process, not a result. To the extent democracy is a result, that result must affirm the legitimacy of the process itself. Legitimacy at every phase of the process. This includes the determination of candidates for public office, including the running mate. Mr Odinga’s view is that the choice of running mate shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of one person alone, but the public’s also.

This is why. First, the DP is a heartbeat away from being President. The DP must be ready on Day One to assume office should the need arise. That’s why involving the public in the selection gives the nominee legitimacy and wider acceptance in case they should take the reins of power. A public vetting process allows the country to give the presidential nominee wise counsel about the choices before him, or her. It widens – and deepens – the reservoir of knowledge because of disclosure of information and public debate on the suitability of those fronted as choices. How can more sunlight on the second highest officeholder be a bad thing? Knowledge and information are formidable tools in any democracy. Secondly, public vetting allows the country to debate the criteria and the requirements for the office of running mate and the candidates. Important factors such as inclusivity, the place of regional, gender, age, social status, race, and ethnicity in the selection process become poignant. Do these different demographics feel affirmed by the process? Is the process a backroom deal between powerful ethnic potentates where the one selected is only accountable to a mafia or cartels? Once in office, will the DP nominee rebel against the President or sabotage the government? What message does the selection send to little girls, or the marginalised? Does the choice bring a huge basket of votes, excite the people, or anger them?

The public’s inclusion in the choice of running mate partially tells Kenyans the state belongs to them, not just the presidential candidate. It says the elite shouldn’t simply disregard the people when they bargain among themselves. The process shows the humility of those who’ve agreed to be publicly vetted. It affirms that no one – no matter their station in life – is too big to be “interviewed” by the people of Kenya. Importantly, it closes the door on those who argue that being publicly vetted is “humiliating”. On the contrary, it’s a rare privilege for anyone to be interviewed for the office of DP. Let’s thank Baba for growing our democratic political traditions.

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School. He’s chair of KHRC. @makaumutua.

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