Election preview: Kenya

Kenya goes to the polls today to elect a new president, with incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta, in office since 2013, prevented by term limits from running again.

After the 2017 election (the first one, that is – more about that shortly) I expressed the hope that there would soon be a new leadership generation in Kenya that would “find a way of overcoming some of the old divisions.” But it hasn’t happened yet. Today’s presidential election pits the incumbent vice-president against a 77-year-old making his fifth attempt at the job.

This post from eight years ago explains the political background. Kenyatta won that election, beating then prime minister Raila Odinga by a reasonably comfortable 50.5% to 43.7%. Four years later the same two faced off again, and Kenyatta increased his margin slightly, winning with 54.2% to 44.9%.

On both occasions Odinga made claims of irregularities, but the second time he was successful: the Kenyan supreme court annulled the 2017 election and ordered a re-run, which was held in October the same year. Odinga, however, refused to contest, arguing that the problems had not been fixed and the system was still stacked against him. Without him, Kenyatta won virtually unopposed with 98.3% of the vote.

Despite that inauspicious start, Kenyatta’s second term is generally seen as having been a success. In 2018 he and Odinga staged a public reconciliation, and he is now backing Odinga in another bid for the presidency – in opposition to his own vice-president of eight years, William Ruto. Ruto and Kenyatta are therefore back to being on opposite sides, just as they were in the disputed election of 2007, when Ruto was supporting Odinga.

This very confusing shuffling of allegiances is heavily personality-based, but also has ethnic overtones; Kenyatta and his predecessor, Mwai Kibaki, both come from the country’s main Bantu group, the Kikuyu, while Ruto and Odinga are both from minority Nilotic groups. But both have chosen Kikuyu running mates (Rigathi Gachagua and Martha Karua, respectively), reflecting the importance of building a broad coalition.

Ideological differences are less than obvious. Odinga’s party, the Orange Democratic Movement, is centre-left, but he is running as part of a coalition that also includes the centre-right Jubilee Party. Ruto, having left the Jubilee Party, is heading the United Democratic Alliance, also broadly centre-right. Both offer similar-sounding programs promising economic development, clean government and social justice.

Opinion polls since the middle of the year have consistently put Odinga in the lead, but only by single-digit margins. Having lost four times before – including once, in 2007, when many observers thought he was the victim of fraud – he will presumably not be taking anything for granted. There are two other candidates, George Wajackoyah and Waihiga Mwaure, who will probably be good for a few points between them.

If it’s close and neither Odinga nor Ruto reaches the 50% mark, a second round will be held within thirty days (it has never been required in the past). The two houses of parliament are being elected at the same time, by first-past-the-post voting in single-member districts on the British model.

Polls close at 11pm tonight (Tuesday), eastern Australian time. Based on past experience, don’t expect a quick count. You can find the electoral commission’s website here, but BBC coverage is generally pretty good.

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