Essential Guide to Kenya’s High Stakes Election on 8 August

Kenya is scheduled to hold a general election on 8 August. The vote comes ten years after a disputed presidential poll brought the key East African country to the brink of civil war. Hundreds of thousands were uprooted from their homes and 1,100 killed in weeks of ethnic fighting and street protests that were met by a brutal police response following the election in December 2007. The next election in 2013 passed off relatively peacefully. In 2017, the presidential race between two scions of Kenya’s most prominent political families has drawn the most attention. But local elections for powerful elected governors are also likely to be bitterly contested.

Why are elections in Kenya so closely watched?

Kenya’s position as one of Africa’s major democracies, its importance as the transport and commercial hub of Eastern Africa and its closely contested races – particularly for the presidency – explain the huge interest its elections attract. Just as during the relatively smooth 2013 election, thousands of observers and local and international media outlets will monitor the elections on 8 August.

At the same time, election outcomes in Kenya are hard to call, campaigns vigorously fought and any violent fallout risks spilling over across its borders. In 2007, when a disputed presidential poll resulted in weeks of bloodletting, major highways leading to neighbouring landlocked countries such as Uganda and Rwanda were blocked, sharply increasing the price of essential goods, including fuel. Aid supplies to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo were also stranded.

What are the prospects the election will pass off peacefully?

Although there are eight candidates contesting the presidency, the 2017 election is essentially a two-way race between the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, 55, son of the country’s first president, and opposition leader Raila Odinga, 72, son of its first vice president. Several factors explain why there is some concern that the country could witness a crisis similar to the one in 2007.

First, the stakes for both campaigns are extremely high. Kenyatta, a member of the largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, does not want to make history as the first Kenyan president not to secure re-election. On the campaign trail, he has argued that he used the first term to lay the ground for major projects that can have a transformational impact and urged the electorate to give him another five years to complete the job.

Odinga, who has contested the presidency thrice before, is making his last serious stab at clinching office. Odinga hails from the Luo ethnic community whose members chafe at years of exclusion from state power, mainly by ruling elites from the Kikuyu community, and many voters view him as a champion of marginalised groups in the country.

Second, the state is a major player in the Kenyan economy and for that reason the electoral outcome could mean gaining, retaining or losing control over decisions that will determine the allocation of tens of millions of dollars in contracts and business opportunities to the candidates and their allies.

Third, these elections are expected to be close. Major pollsters indicate a gap of 4 per cent between the candidates, which is within the margin of error. In the past, closely fought elections have stretched the capacity of key institutions to cope and maintain peace.

Fourth, the electoral commission has faced enormous challenges. A commission of inquiry appointed after the 2007 election crisis recommended that commissioners who run the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) should be in office at least two years before the vote. Yet commissioners in charge of the 2017 election were only installed at the end of January after those who ran the 2013 poll were ousted from office following opposition-led protests. The commission will seek to implement an elaborate electronic system of identifying voters and relaying results but the tools they will use repeatedly have failed in other African elections, most notably in Ghana in 2012. On 31 July, the electoral commission’s official in charge of managing the electronic equipment was found killed and his body dumped in a town in the outskirts of Nairobi. Police promised a probe into the murder but the shocking development added to the tension in an already febrile atmosphere.

Fifth, local elections – notably for the position of county governor – will be bitterly contested as a result of the devolution of power to such localities, with the danger of clashes in multi-ethnic areas.

What has changed since the last round of fighting in 2007?

The substantial institutional reforms enacted following the 2007 post-election crisis raise the prospect that despite all the worries surrounding the 2017 election, it still could pass off relatively smoothly.

In particular, a new constitution endorsed in a 2010 referendum reduced the power of the presidency and sought to spread power more evenly to institutions such as parliament and the judiciary. Significantly, the new law introduced a system of devolution that guarantees that at least 15 per cent of all national government revenue will be allocated to counties run by elected governors. The governors and elected county assemblies enjoy quasi-autonomy to manage funds channelled to the counties to run local agriculture, health care and early education. They also can allocate funds to local infrastructure projects. The reform, which is extremely popular, has had a dual effect. As noted, it raises the stakes for local elections, and thus the risk of violence. At the same time, it ensures that the all-or-nothing competition that marked past presidential elections is a thing of the past; while the stakes are high for the candidates, they arguably will not be quite as high for voters and citizens insofar as all parts of the country can expect a share of what Kenyans call the “national cake”.

Moreover, a large number of the killings that occurred in 2007 took place in the Rift Valley, an area where political incitement and disputes over land ownership have driven repeated cycles of violence. This time around, a political pact between elites from the Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities – the region’s two largest ethnic groups – means that major fighting related to the presidential vote is unlikely to occur. That said, tensions surround local-level battles for the position of governor, particularly in the counties of Narok and Uasin Gishu.

Finally, in 2007, the widespread violence came as a shock to virtually all observers. This time, the country is better prepared; there have been major efforts by security forces, civil society and the business community to try to forestall a crisis.

In short, unless there is large-scale failure of electoral equipment on election day or if the defeated candidate refuses to concede, a crisis on the scale of what occurred in 2007 is unlikely.

What are the issues dominating the campaigns?

President Kenyatta’s pitch to voters is that his government has chalked up a number of achievements, particularly expanding national infrastructure. A $3.8 billion Chinese-built railway connecting the port city of Mombasa to Nairobi began operation on 31 May. It is expected to be extended to neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda. The Kenyatta administration has also waived fees in maternity hospitals and expanded electricity coverage in rural areas.

The opposition, however, contends that Kenyatta has failed the test of inclusiveness. They say his administration is dominated by elites from the Kikuyu community and that of Deputy President William Ruto’s Kalenjin group. The opposition also claims that the ruling Jubilee Party has failed to tackle corruption and that the cost of living is too high. The opposition National Super Alliance promises better stewardship of the economy, reduction of the national debt and focused efforts to reduce the cost of living.

What can be done to ensure the election goes off smoothly?

Diplomats and observer missions have been quietly reaching out to the two main candidates, urging them to sign a peace pact committing to renounce violence, adhere to the electoral code of conduct, accept the will of the people as expressed in a fair and credible poll and to challenge results that do not favour them through the court system.

Those efforts should be stepped up. Both leading candidates have convinced their supporters that they are on course to guaranteed victory; neither has prepared its supporters for eventual defeat. That creates a volatile situation that could lead to violence once vote tallies are announced. In this context, the fact that various observer missions will be headed by high profile individuals potentially able to shape the behaviour of political leaders is welcome. The Carter Center mission will be led by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, while former South African President Thabo Mbeki will head the African Union observer team. Ghana’s former President John Mahama will lead a team of Commonwealth observers. These missions can play an important role in helping to guard against the kind of vote tampering in the main candidates’ ethnic strongholds that has marred past elections; in this context, they should heavily deploy in the Central Kenya and Nyanza backyards of Kenyatta and Odinga. Their presence in those areas would be particularly important because political party agents often consider it overly dangerous to deploy in their rivals’ strongholds, potentially opening the way for mischief.

The electoral commission for its part should seek to communicate clearly and effectively before and after the election in order to reduce the risk that spoilers might stir tensions.

Finally, although 180,000 security personnel and electoral officers have undergone training under a program supported by the United Nations Development Programme to promote conflict-sensitive policing and enhance security going into the election, a clear message from the leadership of the security services that they should be non-partisan and avoid using excessive force would help to limit chances of bloodshed.

Murithi Mutiga, Senior Analyst, Horn of Africa.

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