Kenya heads to the polls on Tuesday to select the country’s new president amid soaring food and fuel prices, a crippling drought and, most importantly, concerns over whether the vote will be free, fair and peaceful .
Concerns are particularly acute over the way the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, which is responsible for steering Kenya’s elections, is handling the process. “They’re far from professional,” says Ken Opalo, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. This year will serve as the first major test for Kenya’s electoral system since the chaotic elections of 2017.
Polling stations are open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. local time and the race remains too close to be announced. The electoral commission can take up to seven days to tally the votes. If no candidate obtains an absolute majority, there will be a second round, which has never happened before.
Who are Kenya’s presidential candidates?
Four candidates are in the running, and the favorites are opposition veteran Raila Odinga, 77, and current vice-president William Ruto, 55. President Uhuru Kenyatta, 60, cannot run for the third time due to term limits.
Odinga, of the center-left Orange Democratic Movement, is running for president for the fifth time and said this race would be his last. He is running under the aegis of the Azimio La Umoja Alliance, which includes the right-wing Jubilee party led by the current president. He is the son of the country’s first vice president and spent several years in prison as a political prisoner in the 1980s and early 1990s.
One of Odinga’s key policy proposals is a social protection program in which he promises to provide 6,000 Kenyan shillings ($50) per month to the country’s most needy households. This would significantly increase the amount of cash assistance given to families through an existing social assistance program. He also promised to implement universal health care through a program called Babacare.
Ruto, of the center-right United Democratic Alliance, tried to portray himself during campaigns as being on the side of the poor and young, even coining the phrase “nation hustler” – a nod to his humble beginnings as a chicken seller. teenager. He served as agriculture minister before becoming vice president in 2013 and is considered one of the country’s biggest maize producers. He and Kenyatta were charged by the International Criminal Court with post-election ethnic violence after the 2007 race, which was later dropped for both individuals. The ICC cited insufficient evidence but declined to acquit Kenyatta and Ruto.
Kenyan Vice President and presidential candidate William Ruto delivers a speech on the last day of campaigning at Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi on August 6, 2022, ahead of Kenya’s August 9 general election.
Simon Maina—AFP via Getty Images
Ruto is particularly focused on expanding access to credit for the informal sector, which includes small and medium enterprises hardest hit by the economic crisis.
Other presidential candidates include joker George Wajackoyah, a professor and lawyer, and David Mwaure Waihiga, also a lawyer. Wajackoyah, who was taken in by Hare Krishna worshipers after being homeless as a child, sparked a debate over the legalization of marijuana, one of the policies he spoke about during the election campaign. Waihiga is also an ordained reverend and has offered to cut income tax in half.
What are the main issues of the election in Kenya?
“The cost of living crisis is the main concern of Kenyans watching these elections,” says Fergus Kell, a research analyst who studies Kenya at Chatham House. “There is real pressure on ordinary Kenyans,” he adds. In recent months, inflation has soared to 8.3% and the war in Ukraine has contributed to long queues at petrol stations and an increase in the cost of essential foods such as corn flour and cooking oil.
According to the UN, Kenya is also facing its worst drought in more than four decades. This has taken its toll especially in herding communities in terms of food insecurity and mortality.
Read more: How Kenya is coping with thousands of displaced climate migrants
For the most part, “the problems in Kenya have remained constant over the last election and the party manifestos are almost the same: fight corruption, lift people out of poverty,” says Gilbert Khadiagala, professor of international relations at the ‘University of the Witwatersrand. in South Africa. What often becomes a deciding factor is voters’ allegiance to their ethnic groups, he adds.
Neither Odinga nor Ruto belong to the country’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, but both have chosen a Kikuyu individual to be their potential vice president. Odinga has chosen Martha Karua, a former justice minister, as his running mate – and if she wins, she would also become Kenya’s first female vice-president. Ruto, for his part, has focused much of his campaign efforts on winning over the Kikuyus and has made progress, despite opposition from Kenyatta, who is part of the community. “Within Kenyatta’s ethnic base, Odinga is actually losing to Ruto, but Kenyatta has been useful to Odinga in helping to build a national coalition,” Opalo from Georgetown says. “Without Kenyatta’s support, Odinga would not have been able to build the broad national coalition he was able to put together.”
The story of Kenya’s tumultuous elections
In 2017, Kenya’s early election results – which saw Kenyatta win 54% to Odinga’s 45% in August – were overturned by the Supreme Court and a re-vote was ordered due to irregularities in the process. (The court said the original vote was “not conducted in accordance with the constitution.”) The voting system failed to electronically transmit each station’s results in a timely manner. Odinga’s lawyers successfully argued that this opened the door to possible vote tampering. (International observers had said the election was fair.) Odinga boycotted the new race in October, which saw Kenyatta take 98% of that vote.
The 2017 elections were also marred by allegations of police impunity. Human Rights Watch said on August 1 that it is concerned that the Kenyan authorities’ failure to address past police abuses will increase the risk of impunity around this year’s elections, particularly if the results are disputed. Following the 2017 elections, Human Rights Watch and other groups documented 104 killings by police and armed gangs, with most of the victims being supporters of the main opposition party at the time.
And in December 2007, after President Mwai Kibaki of the right-wing National Unity Party was declared the winner of that year’s presidential election against Odinga, a dispute over Kibaki’s re-election led to weeks of violence along ethnic lines. At least 1,000 people have died and more than 300,000 have fled their homes. The Kikuyu, where Kibaki is from, were initial targets of violence following election irregularities and allegations of fraud. But reprisal killings, particularly in the Rift Valley, soon followed. Kenya enacted a new constitution in 2010 in response to the 2007–08 crisis, resulting in the subsequent decentralization of power through the creation of 47 local county governments.
According to experts, the violence since the 2007 elections appears to be more localized and on a smaller scale.
The shifting loyalties of the current president
A unique factor in this presidential race is the struggle between the current president and his vice-president Ruto and the support of opposition candidate Odinga.
“It’s an epic election in the sense that the incumbent president took a stand against his vice-president and backed an opposition candidate,” says Witwatersrand’s Khadiagala.
Kenya’s President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta (L) with his running mate William Ruto hold election certificates October 30, 2017 at the National Counting Center in Kenya’s Bomas, where they were announced winners of a presidential re-ballot by the ‘Independent Chairman of the Electoral and Delimitation Commission. Kenyatta was declared the winner of the country’s deeply divisive elections on October 30, winning 98% of the votes cast in a ballot boycotted by his rival Raila Odinga.
Tony Karumba—AFP via Getty Images
In 2018, Kenyatta and Odinga surprised the nation by reconciling in a moment Kenyans call “the handshake”; they developed a relationship and worked together on the Building Bridges initiative, which aims to expand the powers of the executive, among other measures. But Kenya’s Supreme Court ruled in March that the proposed changes were illegal.
Their partnership was made possible by the fact that Kenyatta and Ruto’s old alliance was from the start “a kind of marriage of convenience”, says Kell. They were both facing charges at the ICC related to the 2007-2008 post-election violence.
Tensions between Kenyatta and Ruto have escalated in recent years; the vice president skipped some cabinet meetings, Kell says, and eventually split from the Jubilee Party he formed with Kenyatta in 2013.
But however Kenyans vote on Tuesday, it will be a vote involving several firsts. It is the first time since the country began its transition to democracy in 1992 that there are no Kikuyu candidates in the lead. And Kikuyu opinion remains divided on the two favorites. “The results will have some significant ethnic concentration of votes toward the two leading candidates,” Georgetown’s Opalo said. “But that shouldn’t take away the fact that this time around ethnicity hasn’t been as central as before.”
Kelly agrees. “Personalities have imposed themselves in the campaign more than ethnic identity,” he says.
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