Commentary

Share Power in Haste and You’ll Repent at Leisure

By Patrick Basham
This article appeared in AllAfrica.com on March 31, 2008.

At President Bush’s urging, former United Nations Secretary General Dr Kofi Annan stitched together a power-sharing deal between President Kibaki and Opposition leader, Mr Raila Odinga.

However, this deal will not heal the wounds of a political crisis that has claimed 1,500 lives since December’s disputed presidential election.

During negotiations, Annan said that the international tradition is to join the two sides in a conflict in a grand coalition government to enact necessary reforms. In practice, however, grand coalitions are actually anti-reformist.

Among ethnic groups, power-sharing arrangements can mitigate or exacerbate ethnic conflict. ”

Many proponents of power sharing made the contemporaneous comparison between Germany and Kenya. Unfortunately, Kenyans who expect a German-style grand coalition to solve systemic political, economic, and social problems will have their hopes dashed.

The Economist newspaper describes the German grand coalition (comprising Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union and the centre-left Social Democratic Party) as “ill-tempered” and “more inclined to squabble than act”.

Chancellor Merkel has been unable to implement the free market economic reforms that Germany needs because the policies are anathema to the Social Democrats. The result is policy paralysis on major issues. Consequently, the economy is drastically underperforming.

Usually, there is a de facto senior partner in any grand coalition, which quickly leads to resentment within the leadership of the junior partner. Where no senior partner exists, there is a state of equilibrium or inactivity caused by opposing equal forces, and political stasis is the result.

What do the two major parties get out of governing together? Political scientists Wolfgang C Muller and Kaare Strom oversaw the most comprehensive empirical research into the European experience with coalition governments. They found that, in practice, the only thing that matters to each of the major parties is how their own party performs, not what happens to their coalition partners.

Yet, grand coalitions are highly dangerous, in electoral terms, for the parties that join in government, especially for the party in power. The presence of grand coalitions frustrates voters, who (correctly) determine that it offers them no real choice in government.

Most governments do not maintain their strength in the elections that follow their term in office. In Germany, popular support for both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats is at its lowest levels in decades.

In Germany’s neighbour, Austria, the 13 month-old grand coalition between the major centre-right and the centre-left parties has had a most undesirable outcome. The principal beneficiary has been the racist right wing, which has capitalised upon the government’s inaction by successfully exploiting public’s fears over immigration and globalisation.

According to Prof Liam Cosgrave, in any power-sharing arrangement, cohabitation with former enemies in government may be difficult, and parties may be unwilling to accept each other’s genuineness, despite the conditions of the power-sharing agreement. Hence, an agreement does not guarantee peace and stability.

Among ethnic groups, power-sharing arrangements can mitigate or exacerbate ethnic conflict. In the African context, power-sharing agreements that looked good on paper have failed in recent conflict settings, such as Rwanda and Burundi. In both countries, in which majority-Hutu and minority-Tutsi ethnic groups have a history of violent strife, efforts to find solutions by creating power-sharing democratic institutions proved to be insufficient in overcoming deep distrust and the perception of mutual victimisation. In both cases, the power-sharing experiments broke down and violent clashes ensued.

Kenya cannot benefit from a grand coalition until the overriding prerequisite for reform is in existence. Systemic political reform requires a pro-change consensus not merely among Kenya’s political elite but, most importantly, among the people, themselves.

Only if the underlying problems are adequately addressed will power sharing succeed. Political and ethnic conflicts are commonly influenced by the ownership and distribution of resources. The economic problems that often parallel political inequalities must also be addressed for political power-sharing arrangements to succeed in preventing or mitigating conflict in the long term.

An international community promoting power sharing in a situation of deep conflict runs the risk of potentially rewarding aggression or appeasement of extremists.

Alternatively, as in the Kenyan case, it may induce parties to share power insincerely when they remain deeply suspicious of each other.

In practice, power sharing maintains, legitimises, and strengthens groups’ claims against the State, reinforcing and entrenching ethnicity in the political system by freezing group boundaries in the political system through statutory reservation of offices for specific group representatives.

Kenya’s political leaders have chosen to ignore history. Instead, they have chosen to power share in haste, repent at leisure.

Patrick Basham, the director of the Democracy Institute, is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.