Kenya Gears Up

Kenya Gears Up: Though violence has accompanied recent elections in the East African country, observers are hoping for a more quiet contest Tuesday, with plenty still at stake for the future.

Kenya’s general election on Tuesday is a consequential one: Regardless of the results, it will see the exit of a two-term president and new leadership tasked with improving the financial health of a country mired in economic issues.

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But after previous elections in Kenya were marred by violence and defined heavily by ethnic disputes, these are shaping up to be “the most boring elections in Kenyan history,” asserts Ngala Chome, a Kenyan political commentator and Horn of Africa analyst with Sahan Research, a think tank with an office in Kenya. The lead-up could be described as “one of the calmest and most peaceful pre-election periods we have ever witnessed in recent times,” adds Karuti Kanyinga, director of the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Development Studies.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty at stake in Kenya’s 2022 contests, which not only will produce a new president but also members of Parliament and county assemblies, as well as county governors.

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Amid years of economic growth before the COVID-19 pandemic, the regime of the East African country’s current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has been blamed for ballooning Kenya’s national debt, Chome says. That issue, he says, left a door open for William Ruto, Kenyatta’s deputy president, to break from his boss and campaign on fixing Kenya’s economy, tailoring his appeal to the country’s poorer population and small businesses.

A former chicken seller who is now very wealthy himself, Ruto’s populist stance has changed the tenor of the election, as he’s making “an attempt to say this is about something other than just ethnic alliances,” says Stephen Orvis, a professor of government at Hamilton College in New York state who specializes in African politics. The wheelbarrow has become a symbol of the deputy president’s campaign, as has the tagline “hustler nation.”

Kenya Gears Up for General Election on Tuesday

“It is a fact that Kenya is facing tough economic times,” Chome adds. “The countries in debt. Not so many jobs have been created – actually, jobs have been lost. And that has forced the elections to be about those issues in particular, and not so much else.”

But it’s not just Kenya’s economic future on the ballot Tuesday. Both Chome and Orvis, who served as an international election observers as Kenya held transitional elections to democratic rule in the early 1990s, say the presidential results will shape the status of the country’s political elite. Chome notes there is a “conflict between these two kinds of visions of Kenya: the old guard elite that is refusing to leave the political space, and a new money, an entrepreneurial elite that wants to take charge of the country’s political affairs.”

Weary and wary, Kenyans gear up for national elections

That old guard is symbolized by Kenyatta. The two-term Kenyan leader’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, was the country’s first president decades ago, and the Kenyatta family is among the richest in Kenya, Chome notes. Uhuru Kenyatta has aligned himself with Raila Odinga – Ruto’s main opponent in this year’s election – who is another member of the Kenyan political elite. His father was the first vice president of the country.

Odinga notably is a former fierce political rival of Kenyatta and faced the current president in Kenya’s 2017 contest, the initial results of which were annulled by the country’s Supreme Court. Odinga boycotted the re-vote and declared himself the “people’s president” before eventually making up with Kenyatta, as reported by The Associated Press. He has now become “the candidate of the establishment,” as described by Chome and other co-authors in a recent article about the election.

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Meanwhile, violence punctuated the drama surrounding the 2017 results and has become common around Kenyan elections. The 2007 election, for instance, sparked weeks of bloodshed; Odinga also lost that contest and questioned the results, and later became prime minister under a power-sharing agreement.

Both Chome and Orvis wonder how this year’s loser – recent polling indicates that Odinga has the edge over Ruto – will respond to the election’s results, though Chome says there are fewer concerns locally about widespread violence this year. Kanya adds that the presidential campaign has been largely devoid of any derogatory language or negative organizing approaches that could lead to violence.

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Chome also says there has been an increased trust in Kenyan governmental institutions, especially the judiciary, noting that “any aggrieved political actor will feel that they can go to the judiciary and question any results and think that they can get justice.

“That reduces the need to use violence or even demonstrations or protests,” Chome adds.

New technology being implemented in Kenya also aims to prevent the root causes of political violence. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems in July announced a partnership with Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to “strengthen (the commission’s) monitoring of hate speech” surrounding the election through an artificial intelligence-driven tool.

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The tool compiles social media data and “will allow the IEBC to monitor the content, volume, and trends in electoral hate speech, as well as show which groups, including marginalized communities, are being targeted,” according to a news release. The goal is to allow Kenya’s commission to “be better equipped to support the ability of all Kenyans to participate in the election peacefully and enable all candidates to compete fairly and openly.”

Kenyans “should have a high and realized expectation that their voice matters, that their vote is going to determine the outcome,” says Anthony Banbury, president, and CEO of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. “That is the fundamental premise of democracy, which is increasingly under threat around the world.”

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“The votes of authorized or eligible Kenyans will determine who takes office and … it’s kind of a quaint notion and was taken for granted in so many countries, but increasingly in many countries, you can’t say that with confidence,” Banbury adds. “I’m confident that in Kenya, that will be the case.”

While Orvis maintains that there are still some concerns about violence in Kenya and questions whether there will be major change no matter which presidential candidate wins – both are familiar names with long histories in Kenyan power politics, after all – Tuesday’s vote could, in some ways, be “maybe the most normal election the country’s ever had,” he says. And that’s a good thing.

Weary and wary, Kenyans gear up for national elections

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