Nairobi, Kenya — Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi surprised his country - including his ministers and the 158 members of the National Assembly - by calling a general election in September.
The President says he wants to ''clean the system.'' He can ''no longer tolerate'' working with some fellow politicians he regards as greedy, selfish, and corrupt. He also suspects one minister of involvement in an alleged plan to overthrow him.
Many analysts, however, see in Mr. Moi's announcement a way to root out divisions that have cropped up in the Cabinet. With elections, he may hope he can sweep the plate clean - of traitors and opposition - and start against with a new set of MPs and ministers.
The President may in fact be able to pull this off - for he is greatly liked and admired among the poor and dispossessed in rural areas. In past elections as many as 50 percent of sitting MPs have been voted out. And politicians have been caught unprepared for the year-early election.
Only the richer MPs may be able to come up with funds for all the posters, banners, circulars, election manifestos, and transportation necessary to mount an effective campaign. Inducements to vote such as gifts and handouts also cost money.
Kenya is quite democratic in comparison with other third-world African countries. Like many former British colonies, it started independent life in 1963 with the Westminister-type parliamentary democracy, a ruling party and one or more opposition parties. But, as in most of Africa, this system has fallen apart.
Kenya now has just one party, Moi's Kenya African National Union (KANU). All other parties are banned. But within KANU there is lively debate and there are real contests for electoral seats. Sometimes as many as 10 people will run for a single seat. The campaigns become free-for-alls, and the public becomes deeply involved.
Voters generally are aware of how their MPs perform in office and feel free to throw out those who are perceived as do-nothings. They are aware of the MP who takes his salary and concentrates on private business. Some MPs don't go near Parliament.
Personalities, however, count a lot here. A good MP will look after his constituents, get them schools and clinics; raise money for local activities. Community and tribal affiliations also are factors in how Kenyans vote. Although the President stands for election, no one has ever opposed him, and unless the party throws him out as president of the party, he goes on as president of the country.
The last man to attempt to form an opposition political party is Oginga Odinga, a former vice-president and backer of African socialism. His effort to build a party was nipped in the bud by legislation declaring KANU the sole Kenya party. Odinga was clapped into detention as a dangerous dissident.
Still, Kenya has a reputation for political stability. This is because of its civilian semi-democratic government and because it has never been taken over by a dictator.
It is lese majesty to attack the president. But Kenya probably has fewer political detainees than most African states. Maybe fewer than a dozen. When President Moi came to power, he released all who had been detained by President Kenyatta. But an Aug. 1 coup attempt led by junior Air Force officers changed that. Many of them now are in detention.
The press plays a big part in Kenya's style of democracy. It exercises a great deal of self-censorship, but is comparatively free to write and comment. It is dominated by the Nation and the Standard, which are run by two big foreign groups, the Aga Khan group and the Lonrho group, respectively.
That the press is critical to some degree of the government is reflected in the fact that KANU has bought three other newspapers - a daily, a Sunday, and a Swahili-language paper - in an attempt to ''balance'' government news and views against those of the popular press.
They claim to be objective, and certainly carry a great more foreign news, specially economic and business news, than the popular dailies. It was the government's attempt at compromise: they did not want a government propaganda press on the lines of the Tanzania Daily News, so they gave the job to the party. In addition, they did not want to interfere much with the popular commercial press but they did want newspapers to be more concerned with 'nation building' than are the current commercial newspapers.
Nonetheless, some newspapermen have been detained for what the state regards as ''subversion.'' And recently President Moi criticized a weekly journal for ''sowing seeds of disunity.''
In the days ahead, both the campaign and the papers are likely to be dominated by domestic issues. Housing, land settlement, cooperative farm difficulties, food prices, and income from sales of commodities are expected to be hotly debated.