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An election plan 'not worth taking seriously'

Kenya's CORD coalition has made some impressive promises, but many of them just don't add up.
Last modified: 29 Jan 2013 15:16
Prime Minister Raila Odinga heads the coalition, but hasn't said how he'd pay for his promises [Reuters]

I'm sitting at my desk, with a deepening furrow in my brow, and the back of an envelope rapidly filling with sums that just don't add up.

The "CORD" coalition - one of Kenya's two leading contenders in the current election campaign – has just launched its manifesto with stirring music, high-minded speeches, and rapturous applause.

At first glance, it is an impressive to-do list for a coalition that has a genuine chance of winning the election and an opportunity to deliver on its promises.

Here's a selection of some of the highlights, in no particular order:

Cord promises to…

  • Introduce a pension scheme for those aged 65 and over
  • Establish a universal national health insurance scheme
  • Invest 2.5 percent of GDP in research and development
  • Invest at least 10 percent of GDP in infrastructure over the next five years
  • Establish computer laboratories and internet services in all public schools
  • Accelerate economic growth to 10 percent by 2014 (this was from presidential candidate Raila Odinga's speech and not contained in the manifesto itself)

Reading through the manifesto is a giddying experience. You can't help but feel excited by the country it describes. Fast, efficient infrastructure; well-educated, computer-literate kids; a broad, solid social safety net to protect families and retirees from falling into poverty; a well-paid, uncorrupt andprofessional civil service… you get the idea.

Who pays the bills?

But then I tried to find the small print that tells us how CORD is going to pay for this African Utopia, and it just isn't there. Any serious political manifesto would offer us both sides of the ledger, but this one is completely silent on how much any of these grand schemes might cost taxpayers. Instead, I've been doing some homework of my own.

According to the last census, Kenya has just over a million people over the age of 65. The manifesto offers no details about the pension, but in other countries it is often pegged to the minimum wage (equivalent to about $85). At that level, it will cost the government just over one billion dollars a year. Last year, the government's total budget was worth 17 billion dollars.

The proposal to put 2.5 percent of GDP into R&D would make Kenya 12th in the world in terms of the proportion of national product invested, and more than twice the amount the nearest African nation spends (Tunisia at 1.02 percent).

The proposed investments in infrastructure are even more breathtaking. The 10% figure is twice what European countries spend on average, and even more than the global leader China spends (9 percent).

I am not suggesting that these investments aren't necessary or that they're not good ideas; just that without a clearly explained plan to implement them, the manifesto is a meaningless wish-list that simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

And this issue is about more than about simply holding Kenya's politicians to account for their promises. It cuts to the core problem within the nation's corrosive political culture.

The collapse of political debate

Soon after CORD launched its manifesto, I started tweeting some of these questions. Pretty quickly, people responded with remarks like, "That document's largely a joke. Not worth taking seriously."

The bottom line seems to be that it isn't intended for serious debate. Nobody expects it to be a serious political platform that stands up to scrutiny. It is implicitly understood that the party manifestos are not really a part of this election.

In fact, the fundamental principle of a democratic election – a vigorous national debate to chose between competing policies and national visions – is completely absent here.

Of course the stump speeches all contain grand ideas for the country, but there is no serious dissection of what those promises might mean; how much they might cost; what the unintended consequences might be; and whether they really are such a good idea under the circumstances. And anyway, a close examination of the rival party platforms shows almost no difference between them what so ever.

So, in the absence of that debate, what really does drive the voters' choices in Kenya?

"Kenyans are more divided along ethnic and regional lines…"

The answer is as straightforward as it is unpalatable: it is all about tribe.

This is the first election held under a new constitution drafted specifically to avoid the tribalism that triggered shocking violence during and after the last elections. Back then, every politician solemnly swore they would never take the country back to those dark days. But in the absence of parties built around clear policy visions, politicians have appealed – and voters seem to be responding to – the strongest uniting force in Kenya, which is tribe.

In a recent paper, the respected Brookings Institute suggested that, "Actually, there are early indications that Kenyans will head to the polls more fractionalized along ethnic and regional lines compared to the previous election…"

It is a sobering and deeply worrying conclusion. Of course, violence is not inevitable here, but without a credible choice between competing political visions for the country, voters seem to be dividing along ethnic lines. And as Kenyans are all to aware, that is a dangerous place for this country to be in.