On 8 September 2016 twelve parties allied to the president formally dissolved themselves to form the Jubilee Party. The new ruling party differs from the previous Jubilee Alliance coalition in that it will have a common leadership hierarchy and will run a single slate of candidates in national and sub-national elections. This promises to give President Uhuru Kenyatta a significant advantage in the upcoming elections and has the potential to transform the dynamics of Kenyan politics.
The Jubilee Party
Although the number of parties that have merged into the Jubilee Party is impressive, it is important to note that many of them are bit-part players, and around half have no legislative representation at all. However, the decision of party leaders to merge is nonetheless significant because it promises to change two key aspects of Kenyan politics.
In the past, there has been a tendency for parties that are members of the same coalition at the presidential level to run candidates against each other at the legislative and county levels. This has caused large coalitions significant problems, as it has often diverted energy and attention away from the contest with rival coalitions at the national level. By forming a common political machine, the Jubilee Party will avoid this kind of internal competition, and will be able to achieve considerable efficiencies in terms of its campaign strategy and finance. Moreover, if the party is a success, it will become the largest political party in Kenya since the days of the one-party state. Charles Hornsby, a well-respected commentator on Kenyan politics, has estimated that a spate of recent defections means that Kenyatta is now supported by around two-thirds of the National Assembly.
Parties that merged to form the Jubilee Party
• The National Alliance
• United Republican Party
• New Ford Kenya
• Alliance Party of Kenya
• National Rainbow Coalition
• United Democratic Forum
• Ford People
• Party of National Unity
• Democratic Party
• The Independent Party
• Chama Cha Uma
• Grand National Union
The Jubilee Party also has the potential to change the way that election campaigns play out. Historically, rival leaders swap coalitions ahead of national polls, trying to maximise the position they can get based on their profile and support base. This process depends on both of the main coalitions – the last three elections have boiled down to a two-horse race – being fragile and weak, such that leaders face few disincentives to leave one alliance and join another.
Typically, the political merry-go-round is triggered by one leader swapping sides, which creates a vacancy that other leaders mobilise to fill, leading to a new vacancy, and so on. Should the Jubilee Party succeed in establishing a strong and stable party, it will mean that leading figures from other coalitions will have nowhere to go, encouraging them to stay put. In other words, Jubilee’s unity may impose a degree of stability on the opposition, curtailing the process of party hopping.
The foregoing analysis raises a critical question: can the Jubilee Party hold together? Forming a political party is far easier that maintaining one. Traditionally, Kenyan parties and coalitions struggle to make it through party primaries because losing candidates defect to run on other tickets. This leads to a proliferation of political parties, intense internal competition at the local level, and diverts attention away from the national campaign. In 2007, for example, it is estimated that Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity lost about 10 legislative seats to the opposition because different leaders allied to Kibaki divided the vote at the constituency level.
President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto are certainly pulling out all the stops to protect the party from defections. On the one hand, they are said to be deploying a wide range of the carrots and sticks at the party’s disposal, and will both provide funding for the campaigns of those who win the primaries and “soft landings” for those who lose. On the other, new legislation is being introduced that would ban party hopping 90 days before an election and would require the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to oversee primary polls in a bid to give them greater legitimacy.
This impressive array of informal and formal levers may prove sufficient to keep most leaders within the Jubilee Party in the run up to the 2017 elections, especially given the momentum behind President Kenyatta’s campaign. However, whether it will bind the party in the future is another question. One of the main beneficiaries of these recent developments is Deputy President William Ruto, who faces an uphill battle to replace Kenyatta ahead of the 2022 polls, when term limits will force the president to stand down. The problem Ruto faces is that many of Kenyatta’s supporters do not trust him or wish to see him presiding in State House. Instead, he is viewed by many of the president’s allies as a necessary evil: a partner required to defeat Raila Odinga and the opposition in the short-term, but a dangerous ally and one that is expendable when the threat has passed.
The formation of a stronger ruling party may help Kenyatta to assert his authority, and to line up his backers behind Ruto when the time comes. However, it seems more likely that the Jubilee Party will only survive so long as Kenyatta is there to hold it together, and will begin to come apart at the seams once the succession battle begins to heat up from 2018 onwards.