A constitutional referendum is looming in Kenya yet it remains unclear whether the Country is ready for a parliamentary system of Government.
If yes, it would mean discarding the current presidential system.
This is certainly an issue of weighty legal and political significance as it implies a need to radically re-configure the State as established under the Constitution of Kenya 2010.
The clamor for a parliamentary system of government, or parliamentary democracy, in Kenya is not new. It has been a recurrent theme throughout the constitutional reform process and after, and was one of the contentious issues at the Bomas Conference of 2004.
At the time, Kenyans voiced a deep desire to rid their country of the all-powerful, autocratic presidency. A parliamentary system, comprising an executive prime minister and a ceremonial president, was then proposed as the perfect solution. However, things changed with the adoption of a presidential system at the 2010 referendum.
We have now come full circle. The question we are grappling with today is if the parliamentary system can remedy the real and perceived failures of the presidential system, key among them, lack of inclusivity in national politics.
The need to curtail this vicious cycle of instability spawned the Building Bridges Initiative, one of the two main ongoing constitution reform discussions, the other being ‘Punguza Mzigo’.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of the two processes. But whatever the outcome(s), a constitutional referendum is certainly in the offing. The question then becomes, if the country is to change its current governance structure, what would the new system look like?
We need a system that promotes and sustains an inclusive political process at local and national levels. It must also foster unity and entrench a culture of strong political parties with a national outlook. Clearly, the presidential system in Kenya has fallen short of these goals.
In my view, a parliamentary democracy offers the next best alternative. But what exactly is parliamentary democracy? A parliamentary democracy is simply described as a type of government where the citizens directly elect their representatives to the legislature. The representatives through a majority then elect a prime minister who forms and runs the government.
Since the legislature can also dismiss the prime minister through a motion of no-confidence, it acts as a check on Government on behalf of the people. The executive president under the presidential model is directly elected by the people and becomes head of state and government. The PM in a parliamentary system, on the other hand, is head of government. The head of state in a parliamentary system is either a non-executive president in countries like Italy and Bangladesh, or a constitutional/hereditary monarch in Japan, UK and Sweden.
Unlike an executive president who enjoys a defined term limit, the PM may not serve the full term depending on political, social and economic circumstances prevailing in the country. This has happened in some countries, most notably in the UK with the ongoing Brexit fiasco. Majoritarian interests rule the legislature. However, legislators in a parliament democracy are deemed to represent the will of the people in electing or dismissing a government
Article 1 of our Constitution articulates a democratic State where the people exercise their sovereign power either directly or through their elected representatives. Kenya is ripe for a parliamentary system with an executive PM elected by MPs, and a non-executive president elected directly by the people. This is known as a parliamentary republican system of government.
Given Kenya’s fractious and fragile politics, the parliamentary republican system would work best in our case. But for the parliamentary system to be effective, it must be tied with proportional representation so that every vote counts. The First-Past-The Post electoral system currently in use only serves to perpetuate exclusion by disadvantaging certain groups mostly minorities.
From a Kenyan perspective, the parliamentary republican system of government has many advantages. First, it significantly reduces political tensions in national leadership contests by shifting the actual battle to parliament without necessary supplanting the voters’ universal suffrage rights under Article 38, since legally, the people delegate the power to elect the prime minister to their elected representatives.
In other words, a parliamentary government is still vested with the sovereign will of the people. It is therefore incorrect to argue that the legislature in a parliamentary democracy usurps the power of the people. Instead, it embodies the people’s collective sovereign will in electing the government and its leader.
Secondly, adopting parliamentary democracy will serve to strengthen our political party system by promoting a culture of issue-driven politics and coalition building. We need strong political parties with a national outlook and membership cutting across diverse communities as opposed to entities driven by personalities and individual patronage.
Thirdly, a parliamentary democracy would ensure a more sustainable political and constitutional order in Kenya compared to the presidential system with its winner-take-all approach that consigns losers in national electoral contests to irrelevance.
The fear that a parliamentary system only serves to create an impotent, ceremonial president is simply misplaced. A non-executive president should be a symbol of national unity, a respected statesman or woman, who is not perceived as a prisoner of vested party or regional interests. There are many competent, experienced, respected men and women in Kenya fit for the role.
The views expressed in this article don’t necessarily represent KBC’s opinion.