End the cynicism surrounding party manifestos

First published Sunday Standard, July 2, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

Declarations have no power in the presence of resignation and cynicism. If we are honest, most of us paid too little attention to the launch of three major party manifestos – Jubilee, NASA and Third Way. Marriage ceremonies bring out the same in us. When at weddings do you detail the bridal party outfits, distract yourself with social media and then wait for the kiss and a piece of cake? Or do you reflect on the meaning and commitment in the couple’s vows? I suspect you were probably the same around party manifesto launches last week.

I believe in declarations. The source of the word manifesto comes from “to manifest, to reveal or make known your intentions”. In this sense, this week’s manifesto launches have come late in the day. With the primaries already behind us and the voter more or less certain who they will vote for, it is unlikely the vision, values and programmes contained in the manifestos released this week will drive our electoral choices. This would be a mistake.

The party manifestos released this week represent real choices for the Kenyan citizen. Most observers and analysts have attempted to argue that they are too similar, photocopies of previous manifestos and merely rituals without commitment. I disagree. Whether it be Jubilee’s emphasis on prosperity and jobs or NASA’s focus on social and economic rights, the manifestos represent options for the nation and each of us individually.

There are real issues facing the country. Spiraling debt and living costs, unemployment, expanding inequalities and violence, social and economic rights denial, corruption and a growing disillusionment with public institutions. The parties manifested themselves on these and more issues this week. I have my own views but I leave it to you to read the manifestos. After this, you can make an informed choice to support the party that speaks best to your own values and the vision of the Kenya you want.

My focus is on what could happen next. The parties could simplify the pillars and communicate them in ways more interesting for the average citizen than the PDF downloads. Party leaders could organize events for their local leaders and supporters to internalize the party vision. Civic organisations could convene academics, professional associations, unions, religious communities and other key constituencies to discuss. Voters could ask their candidates how they will scale their party vision down and deliver in the ward, village and neighborhood. Parents could have discussions with their children and especially the first time voters.

The lack of a powerful call to action to citizens and communities is still missing for me in the manifestos. None of the parties have really called us into action or given us license to act within their vision. Without this, how will any of the visions be understood, deepened and protected?

The tenderpreneurs and cartels that stalk our public finances don’t have public manifestos but they do have carefully designed plans. Like our parties, they too, are awake in this season. If there is one lesson we can learn from the last five years, active vigilance and agency by citizens is a precondition for advancing any future vision. Our parties and 47+1 Governments alone cannot survive the onslaught of the cartels that walk the corridors of our Ministries and Courts.

We must drop the resignation and cynicism surrounding manifestos. A friend teased me this week saying the inclusion of a manifesto pledge to create more unemployment among the political class would probably be a more effective appeal for votes. Elsewhere in world, the launch of party manifestos are decisive moments not just to harvest votes but also to establish the Government’s post-election agenda.

Evolving our democracy requires all – not just the party leaders – to create and debate policy choices. What’s clear, regardless of who wins the presidential elections, the country will be governed based on two or more manifestos. We must scale down and hold the visions in our neighborhoods and workplaces with the tenacity of the cartels. To do less, is to lose the moment of the ceremonies that happened last week.

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