On 8 August 2017, Kenyans will go to the polls to elect their national leaders. The presidential election is the highlight of this exercise.
Eight candidates are vying for the presidency, but only two – incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and his longtime political rival Raila Odinga – are considered realistic presidential hopefuls.
To win, a candidate must secure at least 50 percent plus one of the total votes cast, in addition to 25 percent of the votes from half of Kenya’s 47 counties. Kenyatta and Odinga lead grand coalitions of political parties and, according to varying public opinion polls, either one of them is capable of winning the race.
Whereas the Kenyatta-led Jubilee Party emphasizes infrastructural development aimed at stimulating economic development, the Odinga-led National Super Alliance (NASA) assures equal access to state resources and government and social inclusion.
The electoral process and outcome will test the social, political and economic structures of the country.
The Stakes in the Elections
Competitive politics in contemporary Kenya can be traced back to 1992, when the country transitioned from a de jure one-party state to a multiparty democracy. Apart from the 2002 and 2013 general elections that have been touted as relatively peaceful, all elections held after the transition to multiparty democracy have been marred by intense violence. The factors proffered by analysts for the post-2007 electoral conflict that resulted in over 1000 deaths and the internal displacement of many others still prevails.
Ethnicity and Electoral Politics
Although Articles 91 and 92 of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya oblige political parties to have a national character and desist from actions that undermine the stability of the country, politicians have been attempting to circumvent these constitutional provisions. Both NASA and Jubilee have identified plans to pursue an inclusive party structure. Nonetheless, their actions point to their desire to exploit ethnicity to solicit votes. The election period has seen the Kenyatta government declare the Makonde and Kenyans of Asian descent (“Muindis”) the country’s 43rd and 44th “tribes” respectively. The timing and future consequences of this conferment are, however, questionable. Can this action (and the economic promises made to the Makonde) be equated to vote buying? The Makonde, who currently reside in informal settlements, have requested that government resettles them in a permanent area. How this demand would interact with the intractable controversies surrounding land ownership in Kenya is uncertain.
There are also instances of clear manipulation of interethnic dissent. At least eight legislators have been indicted for inciting hatred. A court found MP Junet Mohamed, director of the Orange Democratic Movement’s (Odinga’s party) elections, complicit of encouraging discrimination against the people of Nyeri. An examination of a 10 January campaign message of the running mate of Kenyatta, Vice President William Ruto, in his homeland depicts him stirring ethnic Kalenjin feelings against other ethnicities. Such modes of campaigning threaten social cohesion, a precursor of national unity.
Divergent Usage of Technology
The race to the polls has revealed the inconsistent impacts of technological tools. The Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system adopted by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the official electoral management body of Kenya, in the 2013 elections was widely welcomed for being more effective and secured against rigging. Yet, the system experienced significant failure that disenfranchised some electorates in that election. Regardless, civil society and the main opposition party still prefer registering voters and transferring election results electronically, provided the electronic systems are thoroughly tested. They have argued that the IEBC’s manual backup system is prone to tampering.
Social networking has become a key focus of the elections. Through social media platforms, such as Google’s Kenya Elections Hub, Ushahidi, Uchaguzi, Umati, and PeaceTXT, Kenyans living in different corners of the country managed to forge a common identity in 2013. This helped facilitate social trust and national peace. The use of social media has increased since then. A 2016 Pew Research Center report maintains, 82 percent of adult Kenyans are on electronic social networks, meaning that true and false information can easily reach people across the country. A number of the aforementioned platforms remain active. Others, including Uwajibikaji-pamoja and CountryTrak, have been activated to further stimulate accountability and transparency in the electoral process.
A joint Geopoll-Portland survey conducted in Kenya shows 90 percent of “Kenyans have seen or heard false news in 2017.” Last month, deceptive videos designed to look like BBC and CNN news stories were circulated through social media. The videos had bogus poll results showing the Jubilee flag bearer in the lead.
Just as technology can be employed to produce and share deceptive information about politicians so can it be used to circulate fabricated news about the electoral process and results, either to discredit electoral governance institutions or advance other political interests. Fortunately, the Geopoll-Portland study credits Kenyans for being able to detect falsehood.
Credibility of Electoral Governance Institutions
Kenya’s electoral governance institutions, i.e. the IEBC and judiciary, were revamped after the adoption of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution as part of the effort to find a lasting solution to the country’s recurrent electoral violence, but events leading up to the 8 August elections have raised doubts about the credibility these institutions. The IEBC faces over 300 lawsuits going into the elections. It has been faulted for not thoroughly cleaning up the electoral register, insufficiently cracking down on electoral malpractices and failure to develop a trustworthy backup system to complement the Biometric Voter Registration and Electronic Voter Identification systems, and for awarding the ballot printing contract to a firm purportedly linked to the incumbent president, among other condemnations. The judiciary has ruled in favor of the IEBC in some of these legal disputes, but that might not necessarily alter the views of the petitioners and their supporters.
President Kenyatta has also criticized the judiciary for condoning a deliberate opposition ploy to delay the elections. These criticisms can polarize the public’s confidence in a judicial system meant to resolve electoral disputes. To some Kenyans, the President’s utterance is a plot to subvert judicial independence. To others, the comments reflect genuine concerns and do not undermine the autonomy of the institution. People that conceive electoral governance institutions as lacking credibility might reject the results of the elections and, frighteningly, refuse the Judiciary’s intervention.
Stakeholders have become apprehensive. This is partially because of the lingering memories of the violence experienced after the 2007 elections. The unparalleled competitiveness of this year’s elections, perceptions of impunity surrounding these elections, NASA’s worries about the fairness of the IEBC, recorded incidences of election-related violence, and the hotly contested county-level elections also explain the widespread uneasiness, according to Professor Dorina Bekoe of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
The anxiety has caused the movement of non-indigenes of certain territories to areas dominated by members of their ethnic groups and the stocking up of foodstuff and other essential items.
It has also taken its toll on the economy. Serious business dealings have come to a standstill, with financiers halting their investments and neighboring states diverting their shipments from Mombasa to Tanzanian ports. U.S. and U.K. governments have issued travel warnings about the possibility of disturbances. Tourism in Kenya will suffer from this advisory.
The much-anticipated Kenyan elections take place today. Irrespective of the fact that the vulnerabilities of the past continue to haunt this exercise, there is a sense of hope that the country will pull back from the brink of a nationwide electoral violence.