The democratic ideal visualises a government in which supreme power is vested in the people. They exercise this power indirectly through a system of representation that allows them to elect the leaders of their choice.
In practice, the reality is far more complex. The influence of big business in financing parties and candidates means that some of the biggest owners of capital are inextricably linked to high-level politics.
For example, the funding of US presidential campaigns by big business interests is often hidden in contributions to independent political action committees, or super PACS. The committees can raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.
As an old maxim goes:
He who controls the country’s wealth controls its politics.
When wealthy business people invest in elections they expect their interests to be protected. This has been the expectation in Kenyan politics since the birth of the nation. Over the years, the influence of big business has grown and led to deeper entrenchment of the minority elite.
Big business interests in Kenya range from banking, to manufacturing, construction, retail and wholesale concerns, farming, insurance, and media among many others. Quite a number of large corporations and wealthy business people rely heavily on political patronage to maintain a steady growth trajectory.
Kenya is also experiencing the rise of the “tenderpreneur” - a person who uses their political connections to secure government contracts for personal advantage.
So who finances political campaigns in Kenya? It’s a difficult question to answer because campaign financing arrangements are opaque, and there’s no legal obligation for sponsors to declare all their interests. Large corporations and high net worth individuals tend to be discrete about their donations, but have been known to attend fundraising dinners and to quietly join political foundations.
This model denies the people a seat at the table by allowing only the wealthy minority to participate in determining electoral outcomes. The effect has been to lower trust in the electoral system. Coupled with deep ethnic cleavages, this has led to violence and conflict around elections as different groups jostle for the privileges that come from holding power.
The relationship between big money and the electoral process is worth considering in Kenya at a time when inter-ethnic conflict and violence is so closely linked to the electoral cycle.
Redesigning campaign financing
There is a way out of this. In a functioning democracy financing would be open and transparent to the public and not limited to a small section of the population. This would reduce the monopoly of state tools by a minority elite, by increasing the democratic space for the majority voice.
True democracy presupposes equality of opportunity and transparency in campaigning that reduces the advantage held by wealthier parties and candidates.
But how to achieve this? Given Kenya’s context it wouldn’t make sense simply to mirror the political funding models of the West. The country needs to come up with its own system to suit the African context. Campaign financing needs to be redesigned so that it’s more transparent.
That said, some attempts at reform have been made. Kenya’s main political parties are now entitled to funding by the exchequer under the Political Parties Act. But a party must have received at least 3% of the total votes cast in a general election to qualify for funding. This means that only the big parties benefit.
In the 2014-2015 financial year, for example, the National Alliance received USD$866,679, Orange Democratic Movement USD$848,239 and United Republican Party USD$273,688 on the basis of their numbers in parliament.
According to the Election Campaign Financing Act (2013) political parties can receive up to Sh15 billion (USD$150 million) in contributions, and individuals can make single contributions of up to Sh3 billion (about USD$30 million). Presidential candidates are limited to spending Sh5 billion (USD$50 million) for the duration of the campaign period.
The law doesn’t bar political parties and candidates from raising funds to facilitate their campaigns, or making use of money raised by their friends through events such as fundraising dinners.
But even existing regulations aren’t strictly adhered to. For instance, political parties are failing when it comes to campaign-finance reporting. In practice, very little meaningful political finance data is reported, and even less is easily available to the public.
Reforms to Kenya’s laws on party financing are being considered. But crucial amendments to the legislation that would have improved transparency have stalled. This means that party finances are still not well tracked and therefore, large corporations and wealthy individuals can continue to heavily fund campaigns without much scrutiny.
What steps should be taken
There are steps Kenya should consider to increase the country’s resilience as a society especially during election time.
First, the country must acknowledge that there’s a connection between the money being spent and the influence of special interests on the political process.
Secondly, it’s critical to distinguish between the money necessary for a candidate’s voice to be heard, and that being used to corrupt the political process. If money must be raised for campaigns in a transparent way, then regulations and laws governing campaign financing are crucial.
Third, the issue is not necessarily the sheer amount being spent. The problem is a political system in which the overwhelming majority of political contributions come from a tiny number of individuals. Kenya must shift from this model of financing because it turns politics into a high-stakes game that very often turns violent.
Given that campaign contributions are often understood as purchases of “goodwill” whose returns benefit a select group of political entrepreneurs, reducing their margin of influence is a step in the right direction.