Elections in Kenya: Cautious Optimism?
Much of the analysis surrounding Kenya’s upcoming elections, especially that in the international media, has focused on what could go wrong following the polls. While acknowledging the warnings, there are several causes for optimism, at least with regards to the elections themselves and the immediate aftermath.
Kenyans go to the polls on 9 August to vote for a new president. The public will also elect members of parliament, as well as governors, senators, women’s representatives and assembly members for each of the fledgling 47 county administrations. With the largest economy in East Africa, Kenya’s stability is critical for the region, but elections here bring uncertainty and anxiety domestically, regionally and internationally.
Fear of post-electoral violence stems from historical precedent. Public disorder has been reported in almost every election since the return of multi-party democracy in 1992, with politicians exploiting ethnic identities and land grievances to secure votes. In 2007–8, Kenya was taken to the brink following a disputed poll; demonstrations descended into widespread ethnic violence that resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and left as many as half a million displaced. A new constitution was subsequently promulgated, primarily in an attempt to reduce the overwhelming focus on the presidential election and the ‘winner-takes-all’ system. A portion of power was devolved to 47 new county governments. Though nationwide unrest was avoided during the elections of 2013 and 2017, both were marred by allegations of fraud, resulting in violent protests in several parts of the country.
There will be four names on the presidential ballot on 9 August; only two are serious contenders. In a peculiar arrangement, the outgoing incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta – son of the country’s first president – is backing Raila Odinga – son of the first vice-president – against his own deputy, William Ruto. The deputy president has adopted the role of opposition candidate following a public falling out with Kenyatta in recent years. Ruto – who leads the Kenya Kwanza coalition and is running on a United Democratic Alliance ticket – is marketing himself as the ‘hustler’ and a ‘man of the people’, determined to defeat the ‘dynasties’ that have dominated Kenyan politics since independence. Odinga, running for a fifth and likely final time – as leader of the Azimio la Umoja coalition – is banking on an anti-corruption agenda, together with perceptions that his pragmatic approach to politics is the best option for a country grappling with unsustainable public debt and rising food prices. Polls have suggested that the race is incredibly close, with the possibility that neither candidate will obtain the 50%-plus-one vote necessary to secure the presidency in the first round.
The tightness of the contest alone has many concerned. The International Crisis Group, for example, concentrated much of its pre-election briefing on the bitter disputes between the main candidates. On this basis, one might argue that devolution has failed in its primary objective, with the presidency remaining the be-all and end-all of electoral politics. However, as powerful as the national government executive remains, this argument perhaps understates the importance of the devolved structures and the dispersal of tensions to county-level contests.
As is always the case shortly before an election in Kenya, organised criminal gangs have re-emerged in disparate parts of the country, with analysts linking them to politicians willing to pay vulnerable youths to disrupt their opponents’ campaigns. Indeed, cases have been reported in which campaign agents have been assaulted by groups of youths during political rallies. Ethnic violence has also increased in some of the more marginalised parts of the country. In the expansive northern county of Marsabit, for example, a spike in clan violence has been linked to the race for the gubernatorial seat. However, incidents have largely remained isolated at the county level.
Between January and June 2022, there was a 75% decrease in incidents of politically motivated public disorder nationwide compared to the same period in 2017
In absolute terms, there has been a significant decrease in political violence in advance of the polls. Under REINVENT, a UK-funded community security programme, RUSI maintains an extensive database of security incidents. The statistics are striking (see Figure 1 below). Between January and June 2022, there was a 75% decrease in incidents of politically motivated public disorder nationwide compared to the same period in 2017. Ultimately, there has been a reduction in the intensity, frequency and geographical spread of incidents in the lead-up to election day. There does not appear to be an appetite for violent means, at least among the presidential candidates. When Odinga’s campaign helicopter was stoned by a group of rival supporters in April, Ruto publicly criticised those responsible and issued an apology. With Ruto and Kenyatta both previously indicted by the International Criminal Court in connection to the 2007–8 post-election violence, the two sides are acutely aware of how their conduct might be perceived.
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