On 9 August, Kenyans cast their votes in the fifth presidential elections since independence. The elections were held in conjunction with the National Assembly and district elections. The presidential election, in addition to reflecting Kenya’s political and economic conditions, gained substantial momentum considering its historical context.
The Context of the Kenyan Elections
These elections are the seventh since the country headed towards pluralistic democracy and the end of the one-party rule in 1992. They are also the third after the amendment of the 2010 constitution, which attempted to address the political problems and violence that were witnessed during the 2007 elections. Furthermore, the country has maintained the periodicity of elections since the shift towards multiparty pluralism, making Kenya a more positive electoral model than other surrounding African models that experience either a breach or a decline in democratic norms.
The establishment of changing electoral alliances is the feature governing the Kenyan electoral scene, especially after the multiparty phase of the early 1990s. Elaborating, the multiparty system paved the way for continued ethnic domination in the form of party alliances driven by the control of a specific tribe rather than the control of a single party.
The political alliances in this electoral cycle were the most controversial factors after the disagreement between former President, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his deputy, William Ruto. This was after the first tended to support the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, following their famous 2018 “Handshake Agreement” deal.
Against this backdrop, the current candidate, William Ruto, Vice President to Kenyatta and a member of the Kalenjin people, is leading the elections following the split of the governing party, the Jubilee party, and the escalation of the conflict between Kenyatta and Ruto. Explaining further, this is because William Ruto, representing his new party, the United Democratic Party under the umbrella of the “Kenya First” association, is competing with Raila Odinga, representing the Orange Democratic Movement Alliance.
In terms of political participation, estimates indicate a decrease in participation to around 60 percent this electoral cycle, compared with the previous percentage of 80 percent in the 2017 elections. Although this percentage is not a real-life indicator of the nature of the interactions, the electoral context, and what happens away from the polls, it at least counts as an indicator that reveals the general context as well as the state of public satisfaction of voters affected by the economic and political conditions that the country is witnessing, especially the candidates’ political backgrounds.
The over-expenditure on electoral campaigns and their procedures is one of the factors that exasperates voters. This is because they are suffering from poor living circumstances and difficult economic conditions, but at the same time are witnessing officials spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a process that is fundamentally mistrusted, with electoral costs reaching $370 million in some estimates.
Forty percent of the voters are youth and this is one of the factors that cause a decrease in the percentage of participation. Moreover, this is because the youth have become uninterested in the ethnic policies that control political life and participation. The changing electoral alliances also reflect the pursuit of politicians to achieve their interests at the expense of voters. Additionally, failure to deliver electoral promises related to employment, jobs, and the youth, is a powerful factor when it comes to young people’s willingness to participate.
Electoral Agenda Issues
Although the electoral context and the political process itself are controversial issues and concerns in Kenya’s elections, economic issues and the future of the country’s political situation have gained importance in the context of the electoral process:
The Economic Issue
The economic issues within the electoral context took an ideological and classist dimension, within the framework of the ethnic division ruling. Furthermore, candidates have used the economic issue as a topic that differentiates them. For example, Ruto presented himself as an expression of the working class, against the children of former presidents that have inherited power and affluence; this counts as an additional incentive for the youth and sectors that are uninterested in ethnic domination over political choices.
Ruto thus won the sympathy of the voters, although Odinga played on the state of ethnic marginalization of his ethnicity “Luo”, in comparison to the domination of the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. However, it seems that the public mood of the voters is more affected by class and ideological issues rather than ethnic talk. Ruto passed over Kenyatta’s legacy and the accusations of corruption that surrounded him during his time as Deputy President. Additionally, he promised to strengthen the manufacturing sector and expand social protection. He also offered himself as a supporter to the class that falls below the social hierarchy, as well as promising to provide compensation, universal healthcare, and land redistribution.
Ruto is attempting to employ Odinga’s social justice tools to gain community sympathy, amid the economic and social conditions, increased fears regarding the absence of food security, increase in the rate of unemployment to 40 percent and living costs, as well as the country’s public debt, under Kenyatta’s rule, rising from around $16 billion in 2013 to $71 billion by the end of 2021. Regardless of the promises and economic conditions, the economy is clearly visible in the electoral agenda, reflecting the intersection between the ethnic line and other ideological issues, as the youth sector substantially escalates.
The Kenyan elections raise interest in the implications of the future President’s directions for the nature of Kenya’s alliances and foreign policy in its regional as well as international alliances. This importance comes from the employment of candidates of the external relations network in the electoral race, where each candidate’s trends and tendencies revealed the nature of the economic agenda and the likely external relations network. Adding further, Kenya is a model of stability and trade in the East African region, as well as being a regional partner in combatting terrorism, making it a pivotal state for western policies in the region, despite the magnitude of closeness and trade with China. The latter was present in both candidates’ electoral agenda, especially with the severe debt crisis that controls the relationship between the two countries, which reflects on the economic conditions and the employment opportunities for citizens, given China’s control over projects and infrastructure. However, these projects didn’t produce well-paid jobs for the youth.
Additionally, Kenya has implemented a relatively advanced electoral model in comparison to the surrounding regional systems that are experiencing regression and repression in democracy, especially in West Africa, which moved towards democracy and periodic elections since the 1990s in parallel with the trend toward multiparty in Kenya. Kenya, therefore, maintains its democratic traditions despite the deviations that stagger the political process; other models in East Africa also confirm this. Elaborating, Tanzania and Burundi both experienced elections in 2020, as well as Uganda in 2021, and their general atmospheres were the continued traditional control of the ruling party in addition to the countries being criticized by human rights organizations.
William Ruto’s Win
The announcement made by the President of the Electoral Commission that William Ruto had won by 55.5 percent was accompanied by indicators of tension and rejection of the results by the supporters of Raila Odinga. Moreover, this raised fears of electoral violence, especially with the split between the Commission’s commissioners and some of them criticizing the vote-counting process.
Ruto secured about 25 percent of the votes in 39 districts, including 15 out of 24 districts that favor the winner according to the constitution. Furthermore, he, alongside his deputy, also rounded 17 districts, 10 in the Mount Kenya region and 7 in the Great Rift Valley, which contributed to around two-thirds of the votes Ruto received leading him to win, in addition to winning in traditional areas of control like the coast and western Kenya. This win is coupled with the electoral context in which Ruto was able to employ class grievances and economic issues, to transcend tribal affiliations.
Despite the limited tension that accompanied the announcement of the results, indicators of calmness and a peaceful passage of the electoral scene substantially outweigh the state of tension. Explaining further, this is because the candidates, before the electoral process, confirmed the resort to litigation, in the event that they wish to register any objections, especially with the tangible relative progress of the Kenyan judiciary in the political life of the country. For example, the 2017 elections were canceled by the judiciary, following suspicions of corruption over the electoral process and Odinga’s then complaint against Kenyatta. There was also a court ruling that the “reconciliation agreement” between Kenyatta and Odinga was unconstitutional in 2018, as well as an objection to the attempts at constitutional amendments that Kenyatta attempted to pass. Ruto secured an electoral victory after securing the votes of the Kikuyu people, to which Kenyatta belongs, by hiring a deputy from the Kikuyu, in addition to employing the economic factor and criticizing Kenyatta’s economic policies, especially his borrowing and public debt to China policy, as well as his economic promises.
Apart from Ruto’s electoral battles, a heavyweight awaits him amid the difficult economic conditions in the country, where he must address problems related to public debt, social inequality, and the increase in inflation rates reaching 8.3 percent. In addition, he must address food security challenges and the drought that Kenya and the area suffer from. This is in the context of Ruto’s electoral agenda under the “Kenya First” alliance, where he promised bottom-up economic development, placing many urgent issues on Kenya’s new agenda.
In the end, it seems that Ruto benefited from the popular discontent over the ethnic control over political life, where he succeeded in highlighting issues like inheritance and the control of a specific tribe or family over political life. Despite being a part of the Kalenjin people, which contributed to the formation of political alliances with the Kikuyu, he succeeded in reversing the situation by portraying the Kenyatta-Raila alliance as an extension of the dynasties, while expressing it as the working class against the elites. However, the Kenyatta-Odinga alliance made him carry the heavy legacy of Kenyatta’s rule.