The past few months have witnessed political activity that is reaching fever pitch ahead of the general elections which are slated for August 9th. Public officers intending to contest in the forthcoming elections have resigned from office and political parties have either held party primaries or issued direct nominations. Already, parties have shared with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) the final list of candidates they intend to field for the elections, and campaigns officially begin by the end of May.
In reality, the campaigns commenced years ago; immediately following the 2017 general election when the president and the leader of the opposition made amends and embarked on the constitutional reform process that was the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), the drumbeat of electioneering became ubiquitous. Since then, the political class has largely been in a preparatory mood, with various outfits coming together in anticipation of forming the next government. Despite the attempted BBI constitutional reform being halted by successive courts including the Supreme Court, the effect it has had on political campaigning has persisted, with broad coalitions being formed in apparent anticipation of power-sharing arrangements akin to those proposed under the BBI Bill.
Based on recent developments, the forthcoming elections are shaping up to be highly unprecedented and unique. This is primarily due to the make-up of the competing factions. In an unsurprising but also unprecedented turn of events, the incumbent has thrown his weight behind the opposition leader against his own deputy. The last time we saw this in Africa was in Malawi when Salous Chilima (current and immediate former vice-president of Malawi), was in direct confrontation with President Peter Mutharika.
Evidence suggests that the president intends to remain in active politics beyond his term. For example, he recently revitalised his Jubilee Party, now a member of the Azimio-One Kenya Alliance Coalition that will be fielding Raila Odinga as its presidential candidate. Further, he was appointed Chairperson of the Council of the Azimio-OKA Coalition. More recently, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance omitted allocations for the president’s retirement in his budget statement apparently out of caution to avoid violating the legal restrictions on retirees enjoying perks while involved in active party politics. “Walking into the sunset” does not seem to be on the president’s agenda.
The president’s involvement complicates attempts to forecast the outcome of the elections. For one, it is presumed that the incumbency advantage will operate in favour of the opposition leader with the president’s backing. Already, Raila Odinga has stated he intends to “walk in Uhuru’s footsteps” to benefit from the president’s achievements and inherit his support base. Unfortunately, this puts him in the difficult position of being unable to wholly distance himself from the blemishes in the president’s record. It also undermines one of Odinga’s hallmarks: being an anti-establishment figure. In addition, one need only recall—especially now following the death of President Mwai Kibaki—that the power of President Daniel arap Moi’s incumbency was in fact a poisoned chalice for candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, who was crushed at the polls, wining just 31 per cent of the vote compared to Mwai Kibaki’s 62 per cent. Some claim that Raila Odinga was the “king maker” since he backed President Kibaki. There may be some truth to this, but it is also true that Raila Odinga made a political and not an altruistic decision: he read the mood of the country and surmised that he had to distance himself from the establishment that President Moi and then candidate Uhuru Kenyatta represented. So, in a sense, Deputy President William Ruto is today’s Mwai Kibaki, President Kenyatta is today’s Moi and, irony of all ironies, Raila Odinga is today’s candidate Uhuru Kenyatta. Don’t ever be told that musical chairs is a children’s game.
The president’s involvement also raises questions around the use of state machinery to boost Odinga’s candidacy. A supplementary budget estimate tabled in parliament saw an increase in the president’s budgetary allocation for new vehicles from KSh10 million to KSh300 million. In a campaign season where the president has made clear his level of involvement, it is clear that, with the assistance of the National Treasury, the president has elided the lines between state and political candidate.
In a sense, Deputy President William Ruto is today’s Mwai Kibaki, President Kenyatta is today’s Moi and, irony of all ironies, Raila Odinga is today’s candidate Uhuru Kenyatta.
On the other hand, the deputy president is walking an intellectual tight-rope, taking credit for the achievements of the last 10 years and distancing himself from the blemishes. This is an altogether self-serving strategy but, were it not for the resonance of the “hustler” narrative, one would have thought that its transparent hypocrisy would be its own condemnation.
Bearing in mind Kenya’s unique history with election-related fraud, there exists a tangible risk of either side engaging in fraud, but this is more plausible where the state has a vested interest (such as the president’s). While speaking in the US, the deputy president stated that Kenya’s democracy is under threat and further alluded to a plot by several political actors to manipulate the outcome of the election. In his research, Walter Mebane has shown that fraud was prevalent in both the 2013 and 2017 general elections. The vice president was a beneficiary of both results. It is always hard to speak from both sides of your mouth; except if you are a politician, it seems. Without commenting on the accuracy of the deputy president’s assertions, it is clear that the IEBC, election observers, civil society and the judiciary will have to remain vigilant for any signs of fraud. Already, the deputy president’s party—the United Democratic Alliance—has faced allegations of rigging following its recently concluded primaries.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the highly consequential nature of this election is the context in which it is taking place. Last year, the president and the leader of the opposition attempted to orchestrate a constitutional reform process that was finally halted by the Supreme Court. Seemingly motivated by a desire to remedy the winner-takes-all nature of elections to which they attribute the violence that always accompanies electoral processes, the president and the opposition leader proposed to expand the executive and to make a raft of other changes to the constitution through the BBI. In contortions only possible when the pursuit of power is the organising principle for decision making rather than any sense of principle, both the president and Odinga were supporters of the constitution but led the BBI movement which would have dismembered that constitution. Deputy President Ruto was a virulent critic of the constitution but has portrayed himself as its chief defender with his opposition to the BBI. Like Saint Paul, both camps seem to have experienced a moment of conversion, but it is unclear who is on the road to Damascus. To a section of Kenyans, this entire process was an affront to the spirit of the constitution and constituted an elite power-sharing scheme. Some even viewed it as an attempt by the president to stage-manage his succession. As noted, whilst the BBI was overturned by the courts, the broader political aims sought by its promoters are currently being pursued.
The high stakes nature of the election is not lost on the various political factions in formation. Already, parallels are being drawn between the upcoming election and the 2002 general election, which is widely believed to be one of the more credible elections in Kenya’s history. This is in part due to the broad range of support Raila Odinga has been receiving from political actors who were involved in the 2002 NARC Grand Coalition. However, such a comparison immediately fails as John Githongo rightly explains: the upcoming elections seem to be about nothing. This is despite attempts by both sides to centre economic reform in campaign discourse. Without a clear impetus to go to the polls, voter apathy is high.
Whilst the BBI was overturned by the courts, the broader political aims sought by its promoters are currently being pursued.
Kenya is in the middle of a biting economic crisis. As of June 2021, the country’s public debt stood at KSh7.7 trillion—a 300 per cent increase in the country’s debt stock from 2013. As it stands, a significant portion of the country’s revenue is used to service debt. According to the Institute of Economic Affairs, the debt service to tax revenue ratio is currently 49 per cent—a 19 per cent increase from 2013/14. These trends seem to have brought the economic agendas of the various candidates into sharper focus. For example, the deputy president has proposed a “bottom up” economic model that pits “hustlers” against “dynasties”. On the other hand, his opponent has floated the idea of a social welfare programme involving the distribution of a monthly stipend to certain sectors of the population. These economic agendas seem not to have taken root, with significant political commentary focusing on tribal demographics and the candidates’ support bases in various regions. This is a concerning reality as the next administration will be saddled with the enormous burden of economic recovery. And while the politicians politic, northern Kenya is the grip of a growing famine.
Aside from the state of the economy, these elections come against a backdrop of declining relations between the executive and the judiciary. In recent years, the country has witnessed the flouting of court orders, the interference with the independence of the judiciary, a worrying increase in the rate and normalisation of corruption, and the use of criminal law enforcement agencies for the settlement of commercial disputes. While the courts have in many ways held the executive to account and stood firmly on the side of constitutional order, in the context of commercial and criminal law, the courts are riven with corruption and this has badly dented the judiciary’s credibility. Besides reducing investor confidence and jeopardising the state of the economy, these trends threaten people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. The further they are entrenched, the less likely we as a country are able to backtrack and rebuild.
The upcoming elections are likely to be highly polarising. Election related violence stemming from political division is not new to Kenya; thus far, both sides’ party primaries have been rocked by violence. In what is an unfortunately ironic turn of events, the attempt by the president and Raila Odinga to remedy the “winner-take-all” nature of elections to which they ascribe election-related violence, seems to have had the opposite effect. The broad nature of the coalitions forming only serves to raise the stakes, increasing the likelihood of tensions running high. Take for example the political primaries: the positioning of the two coalitions within their strongholds is such that candidates needed to secure a ticket to maintain a chance at winning in the elections. As a result, some have turned to unscrupulous tactics to do so, and faced with unfavourable outcomes, have resorted to violence.
The broad nature of the coalitions forming only serves to raise the stakes, increasing the likelihood of tensions running high.
The increased digitisation of political campaigning continues to muddy the waters. This election cycle has seen a significant amount of mis- and disinformation. Some of the content tends towards spreading inciteful messages. However, social media platforms have largely remained complacent, jeopardising Kenyans’ access to civic information online, and undermining healthy democratic debate.
Between Kenya’s election history which is fraught with division and violence, and the current state of the economy and the rule of law, the coming elections are likely to be instrumental in shaping the future trajectory of the country and, to an extent, the region, especially at a time when there is increased regional instability. This is further compounded by the changing nature of elections in the digital age.