Economy, political permutations at centre of Kenyan election

Tuesday’s vote is seen as a key test of stability for the East African powerhouse and a referendum on the president’s economic legacy.

A woman casts her ballot at the Kibera primary school in Nairobi
A woman casts her ballot at the Kibera primary school in Nairobi [Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP Photo]

Nairobi, Kenya – Tired of waiting for her daughter to return from voting, Betty Khamayo picked up her eleven-month-old grandson and got into a matatu, a commercial bus just outside her home in Kwanagware on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

The matatu took her to a primary school in Kibera, 8km (5 miles) away, the same polling unit that frontline presidential candidate Raila Odinga had voted earlier in the day.

There, Khamayo voted for him, for the fifth time.

“I came here to practise my democratic right to choose the leader I want for our future and my grandchild’s future,” the 46-year-old businesswoman told Al Jazeera. “I registered here because I wanted to vote in the same place as Baba (Odinga) and now, I feel proud. I feel maybe today my vote is going to be counted and maybe I can celebrate.”

Tuesday’s vote saw Kenyans casting ballots to pick a successor to outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta. Some got to their polling units as early as two hours before voting began at 6am local (03:00 GMT) and closed at 6pm (15:00 GMT).

The stakes are high in the seventh consecutive election in the country since its return to multi-party democracy in 1991 under Daniel Arap Moi.

Four candidates are on the ballot but only two are best poised to succeed Kenyatta. One is Deputy President William Ruto, 55, who is regarded as Moi’s pupil and first came to national consciousness in the 1992 election as a youth campaigner for the ruling party.

He is up against 77-year-old former Prime Minister Odinga, one of the civil society leaders involved in the struggle against – and imprisoned by – Moi in the 1980s.

An opinion poll put the sexagenarian ahead by six percentage points, but his opponent has brushed them aside as “fake” and “propaganda”.

Tuesday’s vote is seen as a key test of stability in a nation regarded as a healthy democracy in a region known for long-serving dictators. Kenya is also the economic hub of East Africa and its neighbours will be keenly watching the vote.

Citizens also voted for governors, legislators and other representatives.

Plans and alliances

The election is also a referendum on the president and his economic legacy.

Unemployment is rife in Kenya as more than a third of its youth are without jobs and the situation has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and supply disruptions due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Commodity prices are currently volatile and trending upwards,” Magdalene Kariuki, 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.”

Ruto, who has called himself a ‘hustler-in-chief’ and talks about growing up poor, has promised to inject 200 billion Kenyan shillings ($1.68bn) into the economy to create job opportunities.

He has framed his campaign around wresting power away from dynasties, referring to Kenyatta and Odinga, whose political careers were preceded by those of their fathers who led the country as its first president and vice president respectively.

Meanwhile, the Odinga campaign has promised to begin paying 6,000 Kenyan shillings ($50) to poor and vulnerable households across the country in its first 100 days in office, as well as a healthcare plan called BabaCare.

The veteran opposition figure has campaigned under the “Change is here” slogan, despite reconciling with longtime foe Kenyatta.

Their truce in 2018, known in Kenya as “the handshake“, ended hostilities between the duo.

But the beginning of a new friendship between old foes also marked the beginning of a new animosity between old friends. Ruto, previously the establishment candidate and Kenyatta’s anointed successor, effectively swapped positions with opposition figure Odinga.

Four years on, the new alliances have crystallised in new coalitions.

The Azimio la Umoja, which has enveloped the ruling Jubilee party, is seeking to consolidate its hold on power by helping Odinga win the presidency on his fifth attempt.

But there is also the Kenya Kwanza movement which has Ruto as its flag bearer and comprises a number of establishment politicians disgruntled with the Kenyatta presidency, including within his own kin, and other opposition elements.

Voter logistics

There is pressure on the Independent Boundaries and Electoral Commission (IEBC) to conduct smooth elections, especially after the Supreme Court ordered a rerun of the presidential polls in 2017.

On Monday, IEBC Chairperson Wafula Chebukati announced the suspension of governorship elections in the Mombasa and Kakamega counties due to a ballot mix-up. Seven officials were also dismissed earlier in the week for various offences, including meeting a local politician in western Kenya.

At noon, there was only a 30 percent turnout or 6.2 million people who had voted, according to IEBC, confirming earlier concerns about voter apathy by analysts.

Only a third of the registered 22 million voters are aged 18-35, even though two-thirds of Kenya’s 56 million people are below 35.

The commission also told Al Jazeera that there had been minor issues at 229 of the over 46,000 polling units nationwide.

Source: Al Jazeera