Kenya politics: Kenya’s elections: the potential for violence

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Country Data and Maps
Economist Intelligence Unit
No abstract is available.
Politics, News Analysis
Political Geography

Over recent months, polls have narrowed the lead between the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his rival, Raila Odinga-leading candidates in this year's presidential election-from 17 points in February to 4 points in July, and one gave Mr Odinga a small lead. The closeness of the contest is increasing the risk of disputes, as happened in 2007, when the opposition refused to accept the outcome. Widespread violence ensued, killing an estimated 1,300 people, displacing more than 600,000 and laying bare the deep ethnic fault lines in Kenyan society. In contrast, the election in 2013, under a new constitution, was largely peaceful, despite the relatively close outcome.

Kenya's presidential and legislative elections on August 8th pit the incumbent, Mr Kenyatta, and his Jubilee Party against Raila Odinga, representing the National Super Alliance (Nasa) coalition. Both are probably contesting their final campaigns-Mr Kenyatta because of the two-term presidential limit and Mr Odinga because of his age (72)-and the stakes are high. Mr Kenyatta is running on the theme of continuity, painting himself as a safe pair of hands. Mr Odinga, a four-time contender, is pushing an agenda focusing on social justice, the government's perceived corruption, its poor response to recent food price inflation and its failure to represent all Kenyans. Mr Kenyatta's incumbency and his lifelong proximity to power offer him huge advantages (including financial), and the historical record shows that no sitting president has ever lost an election. However, he is being tested by Mr Odinga's choice of offensives, including broadsides over a downturn in economic growth this year, massive youth unemployment (estimated 17%) and food price inflation that has impoverished millions. Mr Kenyatta's absence from a recent televised presidential debate also worked in Mr Odinga's favour.

Contentious custodians

Two institutions are responsible for maintaining the legitimacy of the 2017 election and helping to ensure a peaceful outcome: the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and the judiciary. The new IEBC-appointed in January following all-party agreement-has more integrity than its predecessor, but Nasa continues to harbour suspicions about the incumbent regime's influence over the institution. This led Nasa, for example, to take legal action against the ballot-printing contract awarded by the IEBC (to UAE-based Al Ghurair), because of alleged improprieties. Nasa also challenged the use of back-up, manual vote-tallying mechanisms, in cases where electronic voter identification and transmission systems fail, which was a widespread problem in 2013.

The judiciary-which has a mixed record of impartiality-ruled in favour of the IEBC in both cases, by allowing the ballot-printing contract to stand, and by permitting the use of manual back-ups if necessary. The judgements were reasonable in both cases and, most crucially, were accepted by the opposition. Moreover, not all court rulings have favoured the IEBC. A petition, in June, to render constituency-level results final, rather than having them verified by the IEBC's national counting centre in Nairobi, was granted. A subsequent appeal by the IEBC failed. This marks a significant victory for civil society groups and fretful Nasa members, and makes it more likely that political parties will accept the election result.

Widening the pyramid

An intriguing new dimension to this year's election is the effect of devolution on the political landscape. Kenya's 2010 constitution delegated power on an unprecedented scale, creating 47 new counties, each with a senator, a governor and a county assembly. This move was intended to widen the base of Kenya's narrow power pyramid, a colonial legacy. As a result, Kenyans will be voting for six separate levels of government. This was also the case in 2013, but the new framework was then less familiar. Stakeholders are now more aware of the importance of and powers attached to the new positions, meaning that the elections are becoming far more competitive. This has somewhat diluted the focus on the presidential race, and has forced both leading parties to invest heavily in their grassroots campaigns.

Moreover, traditional ethnic chiefs, the customary mid-level "elders" who delivered votes from their communities, are no longer as relevant. They now have to compete for attention with politicians who have a greater impact on local life, and whose increased substitutability promotes meritocratic, rather than ethnic, allegiances. Voters are more discerning and, as a result, top-level politicians need to connect more intimately with their base. However, the large amounts of money being spent by political parties in order to secure victory are a source of concern. No official records are kept, but a former anti-corruption boss believes that patronage networks are bigger than ever, which is fuelling unscrupulous tactics. There is evidence of increased insecurity at a county level because of local politicians fomenting violence or stoking land tensions for their own gain. For example, according to a report by Conservation Watch, a non-governmental organisation, scores have been killed and up to 10,000 driven from their homes in the Northern Rift Valley (a swing state) this year by invasive cattle herders exhorted by the promise of land in exchange for their vote.

Killing of IEBC official

As is often the case in Kenya, it is hard to determine if there are political or criminal acts, but the apparent murder of the head of ICT at the IEBC, Chris Msando, on July 31st, and its proximity to the poll, will inflame tension. In combination with the large sums spent on the ballot, the benefits accruing to the victor and the hostile rhetoric being deployed by both sides, this marks an increase in the risk of widespread ethnic-based violence. Nonetheless, the 2013 election, rather than the 2007 poll, may prove to be a better guide to the likely outcome in 2017. The opposition disputed the outcome in 2013, for a variety of reasons, but accepted the judgement of the Supreme Court that the result should stand. Moreover, key institutions created by the new constitution (such as the IEBC and the Supreme Court) are now more entrenched, and the devolution of power has lessened the focus on the presidential race-the main source of tension and rivalry-and increased the importance of legislative positions. A close contest for power will generate inevitable tensions and will provide a test of Kenya's democratic credentials.

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