News 2008


Will This Marriage of Convenience Work? Time Will Tell

The Nation (Nairobi)


8 March 2008

Arno Kopecky

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, using
constitutional fine print to spell out the exact powers (and perks) of a new leadership. Where before there was one, soon there will be two.

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 rare.

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 victory.

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 negotiation time,"
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.