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New parties act aims to limit ethnic parties in Kenya

In an attempt to bridge ethnic divides in a country that witnessed some awful ethnic violence just a few years ago, Kenya’s political party act, which took effect November 1, seeks to eliminate ethnic-based political parties.

According to the Standard, a political party will now need 1,000 registered members from more than half of the 47 counties in the country to be recognized; regional or ethnic-based political parties, and those regarded as brief case parties would be deregistered. And the act states explicitly that, “Members of a party should reflect regional and ethnic diversity, gender balance and representation of minorities and marginalised groups.”

Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister, Mutula Kilonzo, made the case on Capital FM News

“This is the only way to eliminate tribalism, political party mandarins who set up political parties based on tribe. One thousand is on the lower side and we will revise the figure upwards before the 2017 elections… A lot of existing political parties will die, but out of the ashes of their death other parties will arise that reflect all the good things the nation has craved for.”

Are these efforts likely to be successful? In much of my own scholarly work, I’ve come to the conclusion that the institutionalization of ethnic boundaries often leads to poor governance and violent outcomes, so I am sympathetic to the spirit of the initiative. During the past several decades, leading scholars of constitutional engineering in ethnically-diverse societies such as Donald Horowitz and Andy Reynolds have tried to derive principles to moderate vicious cycles of ethnic conflict based on prior experiences with and theoretical proposals for new constitutions. For the most part, their work has focused on creating electoral incentives for forging cross-ethnic bargains, rather than on strict mandates about party composition. I don’t think I have seen any discussions of what the Kenyans have proposed, which is distinct from an outright ban on ethnic parties (which tends to be about labels and appeals, rather than party composition).

I guess it’s easy to be pessimistic… and indeed, I am not persuaded that such explicit calls for ethnic balancing will do the trick – by making such a provision, the state is forcing itself to make constant ethnic headcounts in order to ensure that parties are in compliance. So rather than forging a sense of “Kenyan-ness,” it is possible that such a provision will simply reinforce existing ethnic divides, and shift the conflicts to intra-party politics. At the national level, efforts to ensure ethnic balances of power, such as in Nigeria, have done little to calm ethnic conflict. Nonetheless, the idea of making sure that political parties have a large and diverse base could help focus political competition on more programmatic campaigns to provide public or non-targeted goods, like education or better water provision, rather than distributing special favors to one’s own ethnic group.

About Evan Lieberman

I am a Professor of Political Science at MIT, and I conduct research, write, and teach about development, ethnic politics, and research methods.

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