Nairobi, Kenya – On August 9, 22.1 million registered Kenyans will go to the polls to elect the country’s fifth president and successor to the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta.
Even though the focus is mostly on the high-profile presidential contest, across the 47 counties, the electorate will also cast votes for county governors, parliament representatives and other lower-level positions.
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Despite not being eligible for election after serving two terms as limited by the constitution, Kenyatta remains centre-stage in the polls. He is backing leading candidate Raila Odinga, his former archrival who is running for the presidency for a record fifth term.
The other main challenger is Deputy President William Ruto, who served two terms with Kenyatta but has since fallen out with his boss after the latter’s reconciliation with Odinga.
Here are five reasons why this election is so hotly contested and what to look out for.
Economy at stake
One of Africa’s largest economies, Kenya has a thriving technology sector and the World Bank has projected that its gross domestic product (GDP) will grow by 5.5 percent at the end of 2022.
But the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising cost of food items due to disruptions in wheat supply as Russia continues to invade Ukraine, have affected the economy and increased unemployment levels.
That has led to an increase in the cost of living which could be a deciding factor in the elections, seen as a referendum on the Kenyatta presidency. Ultimately, it could tilt sections of the public away from his preferred candidate Odinga, towards his estranged deputy, Ruto.
Parts of the north are also experiencing a severe drought, part of a wave of the driest spells to have affected the Horn of Africa region in more than 30 years.
And things could get even worse, analysts say.
“Commodity prices are currently volatile and trending upwards,” Magdalene Kariuki, the head of public policy at the Nairobi office of Africa Practice told Al Jazeera. “Food inflation has increased to about 18.8 percent in June, up from 12.4 percent in May, but efforts are being taken by government to ensure stabilisation and cushion Kenyans.”
“Public debt to GDP ratio is expected to reach 70 percent of GDP in 2022,” she said. “If a presidential candidate is saying only a third of the current budget is what is left for development, then one needs to question some of the manifesto promises being made, interrogating how practical or feasible they are.”
Given how economic indicators have been politicised, whoever wins will have to get to work immediately.
Kenya is seen as a healthy democracy and beacon of stability in East Africa, especially with Uganda and Rwanda having longstanding iron-fisted rulers.
It is also a key power broker in the Great Lakes region covering Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. And its influence also extends to neighbours in the Horn of Africa, given its proximity to Somalia where the al-Qaeda-linked armed group al-Shabab still controls some territory there and has carried out a number of attacks in recent years on Kenyan soil.
But it is perhaps the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is struggling to rout the hundreds of armed groups fighting across the country, especially in the east, that could do with Kenya’s intervention.
“With the accession of the DRC into the East African Community in March this year, the country developed even closer ties to Kenya and President Kenyatta stepped up as mediator in the conflict in the eastern DRC, facilitating talks with armed groups in Nairobi,” said Nelleke van de Walle, the project director for the Great Lakes region for the International Crisis Group. “The EAC recently appointed Kenyatta as special facilitator for this so-called Nairobi process, a position he will continue to hold as he steps down as president.”
In 2018, Felix Tshisekedi, now the president of the DRC, launched his presidential campaign in Nairobi and received the backing of Kenyatta. The latter was indeed the only head of state president at his Congolese counterpart’s swearing-in ceremony in January 2019, due to the controversial nature of the elections.
A peaceful democratic transition would further boost Kenya’s standing and sphere of influence in the region even with Kenyatta gone, analysts say.
But an Odinga presidency would seemingly be the best-case scenario for regional stability and continue Kenyatta’s alignment with DRC, van de Walle told Al Jazeera.
“Odinga was close to President Tshisekedi’s father and introduced him to Kenyatta,” she said. “If William Ruto is elected, it remains to be seen whether Kenya will continue to play an active role. Ruto has closer business ties to Ugandan President Museveni and is less popular in the DRC than either Odinga or Kenyatta.”
Electoral reforms, political climate
In 2007, more than half a million people were displaced and more than a thousand others killed after the electoral commission’s announcement of President Mwai Kibaki as the winner of the election over Odinga who is widely believed to have been the true winner.
A coalition government was then sworn in, with Kibaki as president and Odinga as prime minister – and they helped enact a new constitution to reform the electoral process.
There were also pockets of violence in subsequent 2013 and 2017 elections, with the Supreme Court operating under the supremacy of the constitution, declaring a rerun of the presidential elections.
The new constitution gave the judiciary more powers but some other amendments include the proviso for more women’s representation and the elaborate bill of rights.
One section of the new constitution includes stringent criteria for leadership that made some candidates become ineligible to contest elections – for example, the impeached former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko was barred from contesting in the upcoming elections to be governor in Mombasa County. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission or IEBC also disqualified aspirants in the country who have been previously convicted in court.
Even though it has only been partially implemented, it also effectively helped soften the political climate by “devolving and decentralising powers and lowering the stakes in presidential elections”, said Nicolas Delaunay, who covers Kenya for the International Crisis Group. Some institutions, notably the judiciary, have also been reinforced, he said.
And that means that speculation about possible violence in these elections, which might match 2007 levels, is unlikely to happen, he told Al Jazeera.
“Kenya has evolved a lot since that time and even though there are tensions rising, they are mostly between elites while actually social tensions between communities have been at their lowest during an election time in recent memory,” he said. “There’s always a level of unpredictability … but if there’s any violence, we don’t expect it to reach the levels of 2007.”
Changing dynamics in voting
A very heterogeneous society, Kenya has more than 47 officially recognised ethnic groups.
And at the heart of its politics, ethnic allegiances and identity play a strong role, especially for three of the largest groups: the Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin.
The Kikuyu, also collectively referred to as the Mount Kenya region, is the largest and effectively the country’s largest voting bloc. No Kikuyu is at the head of a big party ticket for the first time since independence in 1963. But three of the four presidential candidates have selected Kikuyus as their running mates everyone in order to appeal to that bloc.
But Deputy President William Ruto has effectively framed the conversation as one of “hustlers versus dynasties”, a class contest between the poor and the rich.
And analysts say even though ethnicity and the church are still influential in elections, this could perhaps be the start of changing dynamics in conversations around elections.
“Class is definitely going to play a role in this election especially because majority population are young and unemployed and do not have access to opportunities,” Nerima Wako-Ojiwa, the executive director of Siasa Place, a youth-led nonprofit organisation engaging youth on politics and governance, told Al Jazeera. “Many of them are living below the poverty line, so the majority who are poor and considered hustlers would identify with that narrative.
“This has existed since independence, we have a large poor population and that is why the economy is centre-stage for most manifestos,” she said.
Prisoners and people in diaspora
Kenyans in diaspora constitute about three to four million people in total, according to data from the authorities. And an estimated 54,000 inmates are spread across the 134 correctional centres in the country.
Unlike in many other African countries, both sets of people are eligible to vote. This is in addition to the rest of the population who are above the age of 18 and have never been convicted for electoral-related offences.
But it comes with a caveat: prisoners can only vote in the presidential election – not other local elections.
The inmates first started voting in the 2017 elections. This was after civil society groups went to court after the promulgation of the 2010 constitution seeking to have prisoners registered as eligible voters.
In January 2013, a Nairobi court granted their wish but it was too late for the IEBC to include them in the 2013 elections.
Ahead of Tuesday’s elections, registered voters in the diaspora are 10,444 – more than double the number (4,223) in the last cycle. The number of registered voters in prison is also 7,483, a 44 percent increase from 5,182 in the last elections.
Another community that is set to vote in the elections are the Shonas, who have been stateless since arriving as missionaries from Zimbabwe in 1959, until two years ago when more than 1,000 officially became citizens.
This is their first time voting in Kenya.