29 November 2012

Kenya: Tackle Hopes, Fears to Win Voters Overs

If you want to get a clear understanding of which way the political winds are blowing at any one time, you have to focus on distinguishing between political drama and, what for lack of a better phrase, I would term as "substantive political events".

The latter, actually lead in some way to a reshaping of the political landscape. The former, to quote Shakespeare, are "like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"

For political drama, I would list such things as presidential candidate Raphael Tuju's launch of his POA political party; and his various appearances on TV to eloquently plead his case to Kenyan voters.

However much excitement Tuju may generate, in the end, nobody who has any idea of local politics, expects to see him shake the PM, Raila Odinga's grip on the "Luo Nyanza" vote.

And, of course, it is much the same with the presidential campaigns of Peter Kenneth and Martha Karua. No matter how often Kenneth may land his helicopter in village playgrounds all over the country; and no matter how often Martha Karua makes it to the evening news headlines with yet another show of defiance towards the hegemonic designs of the Deputy Prime Minister, Uhuru Kenyatta; in the end, it is Uhuru who the masses in Central Kenya adore, and will follow.

Of course, Tuju, Karua and Kenneth claim to be pursuing a non-tribal agenda, and would possibly argue that their campaigns are not dependent on an initial core support group from just one region.

But that is not how things work here. Maybe there will be some change in the future, but as of this point, we can confidently say that a presidential candidate who does not start off with a million or so votes from within his or her regional stronghold, has no real cards to play in this game, and is effectively doomed.

But it is not merely the desperate efforts of these doomed-to-fail presidential candidates that amount to little more than short-lived political theatre.

Even much of what the big boys are currently engaged in, are much the same kind of low-significance political drama. And I predict that a few months from now, we will be amazed that these so-called "coalition negotiations" absorbed so much of our attention.

The logic here is that in order to gain the support of those million or so "political backyard" voters, you have to promise them that some kind of tangible benefit will promptly follow once you fulfill your political ambitions.

And no politician, however skillful, can hope to gain such loyalty without appearing to be focused on nothing less than the presidency.

Yet, a functional coalition would require that some of these top leaders go back to their core supporters and somehow convince them that being "leader of the majority party in parliament" or maybe 'speaker of the senate" is a pretty good compromise, given that the presidency now appears to be out of reach.

It's like a father who had promised his kids that they would soon ride around in his new limousine, suddenly having to turn round to proclaim that, actually, a motorbike is a perfectly acceptable means of personal transport.

No seriously ambitious politician will ever stoop to such a humiliating compromise. And that is why I predict that when the dust has settled, we will find ourselves looking at a Raila-Uhuru runoff, and the country will be treated to a presidential race between the scions of the nation's two most storied political dynasties.

As concerns this riveting race which is to come, I am reminded of something I once read, to the effect that the process of getting political support, depends on how the candidate addresses just two things: the aspirations of the voters; and their anxieties.

I found it strange at the time that the writer seemed to believe that you generally get much further by focusing on the anxieties of the voters, rather than on their aspirations. But I have since seen the light.

Take the case of the US presidential elections: In 2008, Barack Obama ran a campaign based on the American voter's aspiration to a non-partisan brand of politics.

But this year, he only won reelection by playing on the anxieties of what a Mitt Romney presidency might do to the American middle-class, to minorities, and to women.

Appealing to voters aspirations is all very well; but it's when you play on their fears and anxieties that you get to win a hotly contested election.

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