Will This Marriage of
Convenience Work? Time Will Tell
The Nation (Nairobi)
8 March 2008
Can real power be shared? Now that the battlefield has finally
moved from the shamba to Parliament, Kenyans are about to find out
if it is possible. The pen has once again vanquished the sword,
constitutional fine print to spell out the exact powers (and perks)
of a new leadership. Where before there was one, soon there will
This division will occur on two levels. One is the personal
leadership embodied by the Kibaki-Odinga entity; and second, the
ministerial chop shop being represented by the PNU-ODM coalition.
Has anyone ever heard of such a thing? Well actually, yes. It's
quite common. Mr Walter Lindner, Germany's ambassador to Kenya,
has recently done a lot of talking about the example his own
country set in 2005, when a tight election provoked the grand
coalition now managing Europe's largest economy.
"Coalitions are never love affairs or about sympathy," Mr Lindner
told the Press. Grand coalitions in particular, he said, "are
necessary when you have a national challenge that requires social
and political cohesion Germany needed to reform its pension and
social welfare system. Kenya is bogged down by the need for
constitutional and land reforms."
And what, you were wondering, is the difference between a
coalition and a grand coalition? Just about all governments
involve some kind of the former, after all - PNU itself is more of
a coalition than a party, as was the Narc-Rainbow coalition that
preceded it. But the word grand implies that the two biggest
parties in the country unite to form the government, which is
In normal circumstances, one of these will settle for the
Opposition, while the other collaborates with smaller parties to
get its parliamentary majority.
Normal coalitions are the product of politics-as-usual, whereas it
often takes extreme circumstances to produce a grand coalition.
The UK produced a grand coalition during the first World War, for
instance, perceiving the need to unite against a common threat.
Austria and Bulgaria, which are currently ruled by grand
coalitions, use them to marginalize extreme-wing parties with
racist inclinations. The German and Kenyan examples both come from
a disputed presidential election that produced two claimants to
Germany's crisis, though non-violent, also took two months to
resolve. The nitty gritty of how to cut departments (the German
equivalent of ministries) in half "took 80 per cent of the
according to Mr Lindner. "They went department by department, then
put the agreement down in a 120-page agreement."
In Kenya, ODM and PNU have decided to keep the individual
ministries whole (that is, under the leadership of one or the
other party). Rather than share a particular portfolio, the
ministries have been grouped into clusters of similar relevance;
each cluster will then be divided between the two sides.
The idea here is that there are a certain number of ministries
that have to do with the economy, another group that bear on
security, others on governance, etcetera; ODM and PNU will control
the same number of ministries in each of these clusters.
Of course, just how smoothly this theory will be laid out in
practice remains to be seen. One pressing question is if PNU will
relinquish any of the plum ministries it has already nabbed.
But on to stage two is where Mr Odinga and President Kibaki are
working out the delicate details of who gets to call which shots.
Here are two men who days ago could not be left alone in a room -
how can they possibly share a throne?
Again, we have Mr Lindner's encouraging reminder that political
partnerships need prudence to work, not love. The division of a
country's top post into two offices - president and prime minister
- may be new to Kenya, but it's hardly a novel concept worldwide.
Wikipedia lists 72 countries that follow some version of this
model. These break down into two categories: a semi-presidential
system and a parliamentary republic.
The semi-presidential system gives substantive powers to both the
president and the prime minister. Take France, home of Europe's
oldest presidency. The inventors of democracy are now operating
under their fifth constitution, so Kenya needn't feel bad about
working on a second.
What's more, each of France's constitutions has varied in the
powers they allocate to the president and prime minister. The
first president of France was Napoleon, which gives you some idea
of how many miles a man can take an inch.
Today's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is a flashy type with a knack
for grabbing headlines; but in practice he isn't much more
powerful than his prime minister, Francois Fillon.
True, it was Sarkozy who appointed him; but like Kibaki, Sarkozy
isn't allowed to fire his prime minister, and like Raila, Fillon
is the one who controls the day to day workings of the legislature.
Even in the so-called West, personality often decides which office
holds the most power in a semi-presidential system. It's a pretty
safe bet, for instance, that Vladimir Putin is still in charge of
Russia, despite moving his briefcase from the president's office
to the prime minister's.
In a parliamentary republic, by contrast, real power is explicitly
legislated into the prime minister's hands. The president's post
is mostly ceremonial. I first discovered this during a visit to
Iceland three years ago, when I felt briefly important after
securing an interview with president Olafur Grimsson. It was a
short-lived ego trip.
I soon learned that Mr Grimsson's primary job was to expound on
his country's wonderfulness for people like me, in the hopes we
would repeat his praise back home.
Like most men in his position (or women, like Ireland's Mary
McAleese), he spoke several languages, hosted wonderful parties,
and aside from vetoing a single law during 12 years in office, had
no impact on national policy.
So where does that leave Kenya? With a semi-presidential system,
whose president appears on paper to have the edge on his prime
minister, Kibaki's biggest advantage is the fact that he's still
the person who decides whether bills become law or wind up in the
dustbin. His authority over the armed forces is a pretty good
poker chip, too.
But this is Kenya, where personality matters at least as much as
the letter of the law, and there's no question that Raila's
personality looms much larger than his counterpart's. ODM also has
about twice PNU's number of parliamentary seats, on top of which
they own practically every mayor in the country.
And let's not forget that either party can walk out of this
coalition at any moment and force a new election. Should that come
to pass, Kibaki won't be allowed to run for a third term, a
restriction which needn't worry Raila.
For now, however, the indications are that both sides want to give
this thing a shot. After all, a prime ministerial office has been
a goal of Raila's at least since the Bomas Agreement, even if he
didn't mean it for himself. But it's his now, and it will be up to
him to carve out enough space for a big man.
Only time and some hard negotiating will tell how smoothly the new
ship sails. For as Wednesday's Daily Nation announced on the front
page, a new Kenya is indeed being born. Whatever happens next,
let's hope it doesn't resemble the old one too much.