Why even run for President as a third force?

With the proverbial two-horse race between the dominant coalitions the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) and the Jubilee Alliance approaching the last leg, observers ponder as to why the so called “third forces” continue to plod resolutely against the odds. Political pundits have categorically concluded that while they present progressive voices and a fresh mandate they stand no winning chance in Kenya’s hegemony. So why should the Mudavadi’s, Kenneth’s, Karua’s and Kiyiapi’s still persist while the dwindling opinion poll numbers, strapped finances, disinterested media and sparse crowds seem to indicate it is futile to contest for the Presidency? The common explanation is that these compromise candidates are naïve, stubborn, misguided and over ambitious. Conversely, it is explained as an overzealous expression of conviction and patriotism.

The fourth estate and pollsters are arguably complicit in feeding the euphoria of electioneering by focusing on perceived dominant players instead of providing unbiased coverage the public can use to make informed decisions come Election Day. Dominance which is gained from patronage, ethnicity and the size of financial war chests rather than on substantive issues, suitability for office and message. The reason for this is fodder for a different discussion. Briefly explained, it is an unholy alliance born of necessity. Their existence is mutually dependent as bad politics makes the news which in turn makes ratings and provides the audience to target advertising. Good politics is mundane but bad politics is a cash cow. Pollsters and journalists understand this dynamic.

Running for office requires significant personal investment in terms of time, effort and finances. An investment that comes to naught in case one loses the election and pays out huge dividends if one wins.  It is practically impossible to be gainfully employed or engaged in business while contesting for public office. Like in any other competition everyone believes they can win at the onset, but time separates the doers from the talkers. Politics is a game of wits, endurance and strategy but one with surprises and upsets. Those who drop out prematurely are condemned to political obscurity. Those who fall behind often continue to finish either to improve on their “personal bests”, to save their legacies or simply to run a good race in preparation for the next. Finishing the race is also about maintaining the momentum to gain parliamentary strength for ones party or to retain political relevance by becoming king makers in the event there is a runoff election.

It is said that in politics, 24 hours is a lifetime. History is rife with examples of last minute upsets, curved balls and game changers. For example, in the aftermath of the bungled election in 2007 a power sharing agreement between the two main contenders President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga was the solution for maintaining the peace leaving no political winner or losers. Only a traumatized nation. Three years later in 2010, another wild card that realigned the political landscape in was the entrance of the Hague cases against erstwhile political rivals Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Honorable William Ruto. And while on the topic of time as a factor in politics, there is undoubtedly a transformation in politics-as-usual. Whereas, the established coalitions CORD and Jubilee (which should really be read as the Odinga and Kenyatta dynasties) still hold unrivaled political clout, the new entries signal both a “changing of the guard” and expansion of democratic space. Today’s underdogs will be tomorrow’s giants given that these dynasties have no worthy heirs apparent or succession plans. The third forces are aware that their fortunes may change in subsequent election cycles hence the need to position themselves strategically as players in the future by bolstering their political resumes. Perhaps their motivation also lies in “passing the gauntlet to the younger generation” as Peter Kenneth aptly put it having selected 33 year old Ronald Osumba as his running mate.

In the game of democratic politics there are only two groups of contestants at the end. Winners who take the oath of office and losers who concede defeat. After all is said and done, after all the horse trading, defection and marriages of convenience, it is true that only the winning coalition or candidate will matter. The second horse, however close the race, still loses. Nevertheless, what endures are the ideas for change, debates and viewpoints that are presented to the public by each candidate. It strengthens a culture in which a free people are given the choice to elect their leaders, to participate in meaningful civil discourse and to determine the destiny of their nation. It reinforces the belief in the power of a democratic society that permits every citizen, the right to run for office whatever their motivations or pedigree. This is the gift bequeathed to us by those brave patriots who fought for the freedom to speak, the freedom to assemble peacefully and the freedom to hold disparate political opinions. Despite a loss or a losing run these third forces inadvertently plants the seed of possibility and hope into our collective conscience as a nation. The idea that however improbable women, minorities and youth can stand up to be counted and speak up to be heard.

Or one among these might just win.

© Nathan Wangusi

(Nathan Wangusi is a PhD Candidate at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida )



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