In Kenya, elections have lost their shine

The country may now appear to be caught in the grip of election fever, but there is little expectation for real and sustainable change after next month’s polls.

Raila Project Cartoon
[Patrick Gathara/Al Jazeera]

With polls less than a month away, Kenyans are well and truly off to the races. After an uncharacteristically hesitant start, the country is caught in the grip of raging election fever. Running mates have been selected, and party manifestos issued. Campaigns are at each other’s throats, the government is playing favourites and the media is giddily sensationalising it all. The electorate is salivating over promises of the good life with everything from free health and free cash, to fabulous new industries exporting cannabis and hyena testicles.

It was so different just a few months ago. There has been little in the way of the political mobilisation and zeal that has characterised previous contests. John Githongo, prominent anti-corruption activist and publisher of The Elephant, an online news analysis journal where I work, has described it as an election about nothing in March. “Kenyans are going into an election believing in nothing, standing for nothing,” he wrote. “No big idea, no galvanising issue”.

The nomination of Martha Karua as running mate for erstwhile opposition doyen, Raila Odinga, one of the main candidates in the election, represents the first time that a major coalition has picked a woman to join its top ticket, and seems to have breathed new life into his previously flagging campaign. A poll conducted after the announcement in mid-May showed the ticket taking the lead in the race for the first time. Odinga and Karua are still leading the race by six points, according to the latest polls.

Their main competition for State House comes in the person of current Deputy President William Ruto, who also picked his running mate in mid-May, selecting Rigathi Gachagua, a businessman and former personal assistant to his estranged boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta.

On paper, this should be an easy choice for Kenyans. On the one hand, you have a ticket that combines two icons of what Kenyans like to call the Second Liberation – the push to free the state from the clutches of the brutal kleptocracy that took over the colonial state following independence in 1963. Odinga, whose father, Kenya’s first vice president, was detained by the regime of Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president, was himself detained and tortured by the dictatorship of the second president, Daniel Arap Moi and is intimately associated with the push to restore multiparty democracy, expand rights and enact a new constitution. Karua, too, has a long record of fighting authoritarianism both as a lawyer and opposition legislator and is widely considered one of the few politicians who are not personally corrupt.

On the other hand, Ruto has been accused of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in relation to the violence that followed the disputed 2007 election in which he was ironically backing Odinga’s bid for the presidency. He is dogged by accusations of corruption and has yet to account for the source of his fabulous wealth. His running mate was also a government official during the worst days of the Moi tyranny.

However, Ruto has mounted a populist campaign focusing on the disaffection many have felt following 10 years of Kenyatta’s rule that have plunged the country deep into debt and tried to frame the election as a battle between the “dynasties” – kleptocratic families that have dominated the political and economic landscape since independence in 1963 – and the “hustlers,” code for the Kenyans they have impoverished and brutalised. That should be a hard sell for Ruto, who has been in and out of government for two decades, though, unlike Kenyatta and Odinga, he is not a scion of the dynasties.

But, more than anything, for me, this election is about the supposed good guys of Kenyan politics – the progressives, who stood against the dictatorship of Moi and the ruling party, KANU, in the ’80s and ’90s – coming into their own as hypocrites, sycophants and cheering abusers of state power. Rather than change, it is about their initiation into the ways of power. Where, in previous years, they have been either grudgingly tolerant or loudly protested against the corruption and abuses of the state, today they are actively seeking its endorsement and revelling in its abuses.

When Odinga and Karua are happy to enjoy the benefits of a partisan state, despite the Constitution requiring it to be neutral, and are silent about their patron Kenyatta awarding state honours to his relatives and attempting to forcefully take land belonging to a university and hand it over to the World Health Organization, it blurs the distinction between themselves as reformers and their opponents.

But this is nothing new for the jaded Kenyan electorate long accustomed to hypocritical politicians shifting alliances and stances to suit the prevailing wind. In the run-up to independence, for example, activists such as Uhuru’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, were happy to work with and benefit from the colonial regime in order to gain power with promises of change once they did. That turned out to be a mirage.

What is new is the apathy that seems to have infected significant parts of the electorate with many either refusing to register as voters or commit to supporting one side or the other. Elections, and particularly presidential elections, which for more than 30 years have been marketed as the path to democratic nirvana and prosperity, appear to have lost their shine.

This could simply be a reflection of global trends. According to the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance, “voter turnout has been declining across the globe since the beginning of the 1990s”. A more recent study, published last year dates the decline back to the 1960s, attributing it to generational change and voter fatigue resulting from an increasing number of elections and elective institutions. In Kenya, the number of ballots has multiplied since the dawn of the millennium to include constitutional referendums, repeat presidential elections, votes for devolved governments and assemblies, as well as numerous by-elections.

However, turnout is just settling down after the euphoria and expectation created by the 2010 Constitution. In the 18 years before the referendum that adopted the Constitution, turnout never exceeded 70 percent according to Prof Karuti Kanyinga of the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi. And in fact, the lowest turnout in the period was recorded at what was perhaps the most consequential election: the 2002 contest that swept away the KANU dictatorship. Only 57 percent of registered voters came out for that.

By contrast, the 2010 referendum saw a 72 percent turnout which jumped to 85 percent for the 2013 elections and then dropped to a still impressive 79 percent for the annulled 2017 contest. So maybe the current apathy simply reflects a correction of the irrational exuberance surrounding the 2010 Constitution and the changes it was expected to bring forth. Perhaps it reflects a realisation that, just as they were in the pre-2010 period, elections remain an unlikely path to real and sustained change.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.