On 8 August Kenyans head to the polls to elect a president, parliament and local officials. The world will be watching closely as the two main candidates face each other for the second time. Uhuru Kenyatta (55) defeated Raila Odinga (72) in 2013 with 50.5% of the vote against 43.7%. Latest opinion polls agree that this contest will be tight, but differ on who is leading. IPSOS Kenya gauges 47% for Kenyatta and 43% for Odinga. Infotrak has Odinga narrowly ahead: 47% vs 46%. However, given the failures of opinion polls during the Brexit vote and the US Presidential elections last year, and stated error margins of around 2%, it seems too close to call.
How is this election different, given that the leading candidates are the same as in 2013?
Kenyatta may find it more difficult to win this time around. Four years is a short time to measure policy change and progress, but the electorate will be asking questions about his achievements. Previously Kenyatta proclaimed himself a ‘digital’ candidate, running against an ‘analogue’ older generation of politicians. Indeed the youth vote matters significantly. Those under 35 constitute 51% of the entire electorate. And Kenyatta’s digital policies, which appeal to the young, have been successful and served to solidify Kenya’s reputation as a continental digital hub. E-centres have been launched, allowing citizens to easily pay for municipal services. Kenyans can apply for official documents and pay their taxes online. An internet portal was developed to track government projects and another to report corruption. Youth unemployment remains an issue though, with one in five Kenyans between 15 and 29 out of work.
Kenyatta’s other pledge in 2013 was to crack down on corruption. Progress on this front has been slower than expected, although in 2015 the president declared it ‘a national security threat’. The country ranked 145th (out of 176) in the 2016 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, dropping from 2013, when it was 136th. Prominent Kenyan anti-corruption activist John Githongo called the current administration the most corrupt in the country’s history. It must however be noted that in 2015 Kenyatta suspended and subsequently removed five ministers following graft allegations.
This is Odinga’s fourth attempt to occupy Kenya’s highest office, having previously served as prime minister in the country’s unity government between 2008 and 2013, under Mwai Kibaki. This was after the two faced off in 2007 in a violent, disputed election which left over 1 000 people dead and as many as 600 000 displaced.
The 2013 poll was generally peaceful largely due to the important reforms the government instituted but many fear a resurgence of violence this time, should the credibility of the ballot be in doubt. New election officials assumed office in January after their predecessors were accused of mismanaging the previous poll. Odinga’s supporters have already declared that they will eschew the courts if they suspect election rigging, with some fearing they will take to the streets instead. While widespread violence is unlikely, due to the peaceful manner in which 2013 elections were conducted, it cannot be ruled out altogether. The torture and murder of Chris Msando, a senior election official, just a week before the ballot escalated these fears.
Despite tensions, Kenya’s government said that an internet shutdown during elections, as witnessed in some other African states recently, is unlikely, but admitted that social media may be blocked. While the intention is to avoid hate speech and incitement of violence, there are concerns that it may also be used to curtail eye witness reports on election rigging. This announcement was made in context of recent attempts by the government to limit freedom of expression. Numerous journalists and bloggers were arrested, on a variety of charges, but ultimately for criticising officials and government performance. Some media houses under pressure fired staff members who were critical of Kenyatta and his administration.
One crucial difference between this election and the previous one in 2013 is that the International Criminal Court (ICC) case is no longer looming over Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto. Four years ago it overshadowed his entire campaign, as he was facing charges of instigating the 2007 post-electoral violence. The case was dropped due to a lack of evidence, amid reports of witness intimidation and political interference. Kenyatta actually managed to turn the charges to his advantage, claiming that Odinga was doing the bidding of former colonial powers and the ICC, and urging Kenyans to reject foreign interference in the country’s domestic politics. The ICC also dropped its cases against five other top political figures thought to be implicated, including Ruto.
It is concerning that there is unlikely to be any justice for the victims of 2007 violence.
Kenya’s next president will face serious challenges, including dealing with the security threat posed by al-Shabaab, reducing unemployment and eradicating corruption. Hopefully he will not have to deal with post-election domestic unrest as well.
Report by Yarik Turianskyi is the Programme Manager for Governance and APRM at SAIIA. Mélanie Rondreux is a Visiting Scholar with SAIIA’s Governance and Foreign Policy Programme. This article was first published with the Africa Portal.