Kenya will hold its general election on 9 August in a major test of stability in a country where elections are frequently marred by allegations of fraud and ethnic and politically motivated violence.
The worst example of this was the 2007 elections in which at least 1 100 people were killed and over 500 000 displaced in post-election violence. The subsequent elections in 2013 and 2017 did not see the same levels of violence, but ethnic tensions and accusations of voter fraud did occur. Notably, the Kenyan Supreme Court was forced to order the 2017 presidential election to be rerun due to widespread irregularities, but this ultimately had no impact on the final outcome as President Uhuru Kenyatta secured re-election.
The upcoming August election is primarily being contested by Vice President William Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza (Kenya First) coalition and perennial opposition figure Raila Odinga who is contesting his fifth presidential election and his Azimio La Umoja (Resolve to Unite) coalition. Significantly, Kenyatta is not supporting Ruto despite him serving as Kenyatta’s vice president for the past ten years, but is instead backing his erstwhile rival, Odinga. Kenyatta officially declared his support for Odinga in February of this year and brought his Jubilee party into Odinga’s coalition. The two former enemies have become increasingly close allies since March 2018 when they surprised the nation by declaring a truce and shaking hands in public. This act, though controversial at the time, significant calmed political and ethnic tensions in the wake of the tense 2017 election and rerun. However, it did alienate Ruto who had been Kenyatta’s heir apparent and, in fact, initially agreed to back Kenyatta’s presidential bid in 2013 in the belief that Kenyatta would back his presidential ambitions in return.
The alliance between Kenyatta and Odinga also has a certain historical symmetry as Odinga’s father Oginga Odinga served as Kenya’s first-ever vice president in the country’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta’s first cabinet. Jomo and Oginga would eventually fall out, leading the Odingas to become Kenya’s preeminent opposition family.
The return of a Kenyatta-Odinga alliance has also significantly cooled ethnic tensions in the build-up to this election as it unifies previous opposing ethnic alliances into the same coalition. This is underscored by the apparent absence of ethnic-based rhetoric in the build-up to the election and has been helped by the fact that both candidates have selected a running mate from Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu.
In the absence of ethnic-based rhetoric, Ruto has, instead, sought to fight the election as a class conflict. Despite his own significant wealth and political pedigree, Ruto has tried to frame the election as a battle between the elites and the so-called ‘hustlers’. Hustler is common Kenyan parlance to describe the country’s largely poor and working-class population who have to ‘hustle’ to survive. Ruto has claimed that the Odinga-Kenyatta alliance is a conspiracy by Kenya’s political elite to keep him out of office.
As it stands, Odinga is considered the frontrunner for the election. He overtook Ruto in the prediction polls earlier this year, and as of June, was polling 6% ahead of the vice president. However, the election is expected to be exceedingly close. This has raised concerns that Kenya could again be facing a disputed election which will need to be adjudicated by the country’s Supreme Court. Ruto’s claims that he has been targeted by the country’s elites and powerbrokers has definitely laid the groundwork for him to dispute the election result, and Odinga – aware that this is his last chance at the presidency – has a history of challenging election results.
Should such a challenge take place, there is a possibility of politically motivated demonstrations and unrest. Such violence could spark dormant ethnic tensions in the country and fuel inter-communal conflict. The pre-election period may not have been marked by ethnic tensions thus far, but such enmity is never far below the surface in Kenya and could be aggravated by a disputed election. As such, this election will provide a significant test of Kenya’s nation building efforts following the 2007 election and the country’s growing political maturity.