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Referendum Or Not ? Ruto’s Big Dilemma

Referendum Or Not ? Ruto’s Big Dilemma

What you need to know:

President William Ruto is on the horns of a political dilemma amid calls for a referendum that could be used by his rivals as a protest vote against his administration and as a litmus test for the 2027 polls.

A defeat for President Ruto in a referendum would be perceived as a vote of no confidence in his administration and could be exploited by the Opposition to build momentum for the 2027 elections.

Although the current negotiations were initiated by President Ruto and the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition Party, there is no guarantee that the two camps would be on the same side if the country goes to the polls to amend the 2010 Constitution.

The current scenario is reminiscent of 2005, when then President Mwai Kibaki, who like Dr Ruto was serving his first term, took the country to a referendum.

The vote, however, opened a rift in Mr Kibaki’s administration with his then Roads minister and current Azimio leader Raila Odinga leading the resistance to the proposed new constitution.

President Ruto scoffs at bid to remove presidential term limit
President Ruto scoffs at bid to remove presidential term limit

Well over half of Kenyans voted ‘No’, handing Mr Odinga’s camp sweet victory over Mr Kibaki. Mr Kibaki responded by sacking his entire cabinet alongside senior government officials who had teamed up with Mr Odinga.

But Mr Odinga and several other senior politicians — including Dr Ruto, Mr Musalia Mudavadi and Mr Kalonzo Musyoka — would use the victory to galvanise their support base for the 2007 elections.

Mr Kibaki would face Mr Odinga in a hotly contested presidential contest, the outcome of which was violently disputed, leading to the formation of a grand coalition government with Mr Odinga as Prime Minister and Mr Kibaki as President.

Analysts say Dr Ruto cannot afford to take the country to a referendum at this time. They say his government is currently facing heavy criticism over the high cost of living and new taxes.

“It would be detrimental for the President to hold a referendum in his first term. It would put his credibility on the line,” says university don and political analyst David Monda.

The professor of political science at the City University of New York notes that Mr Odinga is likely to use such a vote to galvanise his support base for a possible 2027 bid, as he did in 2005.

Machakos Deputy Governor Francis Mwangangi says such a vote would work in favour of either political faction at the expense of the other, depending on the outcome of the referendum.

He argues that, should Dr Ruto’s and Mr Odinga’s camps go their separate ways in the event of a referendum, the camp that wins the vote would build on the victory to create momentum for the 2027 General Election.

Raila Odinga
Mr Raila Odinga, then leader of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy, receives copies of the Okoa Kenya referendum bid booklets.

from Lawyer Antony Oluoch at Okoa Kenya offices in Nairobi’s Lavington neighbourhood in October 2015. A similar initiative is being mooted.

“Such an outcome would have major political implications for Dr Ruto’s re-election. For an incumbent to lose the referendum would imply that voters lacks confidence in his leadership,” says Mr Mwangangi.

He notes, however, that a victory for the President would help his re-election bid. He adds that a referendum could also lead to a major political realignment.

Some of the President’s allies are nervous about holding a referendum in his first term. They say such a highly charged exercise would derail the ruling party’s development agenda.

“This country is not ready for any kind of referendum. We have a bigger responsibility to fix the economy that we inherited, which was sliding towards collapse,” says Nyaribari Chache MP Zaheer Jhanda.

Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei, who has tabled proposals to extend the presidential term limit from five to seven years, says the country should first allow the National Dialogue Committee to isolate issues that require policy and legislative interventions.

He says it is premature to talk about a referendum at this stage.

“I don’t see any problem if the country is ready for a referendum. But for now, we should allow the Bomas team to complete its mandate first,” said Mr Cherargei.

Several proposals submitted to the National Dialogue Committee would require a referendum because they touch on Article 255 of the Constitution.

The changes that would require a referendum include amendments to the Bill of Rights, the term of office of the President, the independence of the judiciary and the functions of Parliament, and the purposes, principles and structure of devolved government.

A proposal to increase the number of counties, to extend the term of office of the President and to create the office of Official Leader of the Opposition are other proposals that would require a referendum.

 Aukot: It is selfish to increase presidential term limit
Aukot: It is selfish to increase presidential term limit

Under Article 257, an amendment to the Constitution may be proposed by a popular initiative signed by at least one million registered voters.


The proponents of a popular initiative are required to submit the draft bill and supporting signatures to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

If the IEBC is satisfied that the initiative meets the requirements, the commission must submit the bill to each county assembly for consideration within three months. If a bill is approved by a majority of the county assemblies, it is immediately tabled in Parliament.


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