Nairobi, Kenya – On August 9, 22.1 million registered Kenyans will go to the polls to elect the country’s fifth president and incumbent successor Uhuru Kenyatta.
While primarily focused on the high-profile presidential run, across 47 counties, voters will also vote for county governors, congressional representatives, and other lower-level positions.
Despite being ineligible to vote after serving two constitutionally limited terms, Kenyatta remains central in the polls. He is backing leading candidate Raila Odinga, his former rival, who is running for president for a record fifth term.
The other main challenger is Vice President William Ruto, who served two terms with Kenyatta but has since gone with his boss after reconciling with Odinga.
Here are five reasons why this election is hot and what to look out for.
The economy is under threat
One of Africa’s largest economies, Kenya has a thriving technology sector, and the World Bank has predicted that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) will grow by 5.5 percent by the end of 2022. .
But the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and soaring food costs due to disruptions in wheat supplies as Russia continues to invade Ukraine, has hit the economy and increased unemployment.
That has led to an increase in the cost of living that could be a deciding factor in elections, seen as a referendum on Kenyatta’s presidency. Ultimately, it could turn many sections of the public away from his preferred candidate, Odinga, towards his estranged deputy, Ruto.
Parts of the north are also experienced a severe droughtpart of a wave of the driest to affect the Horn of Africa in more than 30 years.
And things could get worse, analysts say.
“Commodity prices are volatile and trending up,” Magdalene Kariuki, head of public policy at Africa Practice’s Nairobi office, told Al Jazeera. “Food inflation picked up to around 18.8% in June, up from 12.4% in May, but the government is working to ensure stability and lift Kenyans.”
“The public debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to reach 70 percent of GDP by 2022,” she said. “If a presidential candidate says that only a third of the current budget is money left for development, then one needs to question how some of the promises in the manifesto are being made, question how realistic or possible they are.”
Given how politicized the economic indicators are, whoever wins will have to get to work immediately.
Kenya is seen as a healthy democracy and a beacon of stability in East Africa, especially with Uganda and Rwanda having long-standing iron rulers.
It is also an important power broker in the Great Lakes region including Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. And its influence also extends to neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa, because of 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 perhaps the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is struggling to drive out hundreds of armed groups fighting across the country, especially in the east, can do with Kenya’s intervention.
“With the accession of the DRC to the East African Community in March this year, the country has developed an even closer relationship with Kenya and President Kenyatta has become a mediator in the conflict in the eastern DRC. , facilitating negotiations with armed groups in Nairobi,” said Nelleke van de Walle, Great Lakes project manager for the International Crisis Group. “The Recently appointed EAC Kenyatta as a special supporter of this so-called Nairobi process, a position he will continue to hold upon stepping down as president. “
In 2018, Felix Tshisekedi, now chairman of the DRC, launched his presidential campaign in Nairobi and received the support of Kenyatta. The latter was actually the only head of state at his Congolese counterpart’s inauguration in January 2019, due to the controversial nature of the election.
A peaceful democratic transition would further boost Kenya’s standing and sphere of influence in the region even after Kenyatta is gone, analysts say.
But an Odinga president would seem to be the best-case scenario for regional stability and continuing Kenyatta’s alignment with the DRC, van de Walle told Al Jazeera.
“Odinga was very 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 with Ugandan President Museveni and is less popular in the DRC than Odinga or Kenyatta. “
Election reform, political environment
In 2007, more than half a million people were displaced and over a thousand others were killed after the election commission announced President Mwai Kibaki as the winner of the election over Odinga, who was widely seen as the winner. really.
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 was also much violence in the subsequent 2013 and 2017 elections, with the Supreme Court operating under constitutional supremacy, announcing the reorganization of the presidential elections.
The new constitution gave the judiciary more powers, but some other amendments include a provision for greater representation of women and a complex bill of rights.
Part of the new constitution includes strict leadership criteria that disqualify some candidates from contesting elections – for example, the impeached former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko has been impeached. prohibited from running in the upcoming election to become governor in Mombasa County. The Border Commission and Independent Elections or IEBC is also disqualified from participation by domestic aspirants who have been previously convicted in court.
Nicolas Delaunay, head of the International Crisis Group, said that while it was only partially implemented, it had effectively calmed the political climate by “causing division and division.” granting power and reducing stakes in presidential elections”, strengthening institutions. .
And that means speculation about possible violence in these elections, possibly matching 2007 levels, is unlikely, he told Al Jazeera.
“Kenya has evolved a lot since that time and even as tensions are growing, they are mostly between elites and in fact social tensions between communities have been at their lowest level in years,” he said. election time in recent memory. “There is always a level of unpredictability…but if there is any violence, we do not expect it to reach 2007 levels.”
Changing the dynamics of voting
A highly heterogeneous society, Kenya has more than 47 officially recognized ethnic groups.
And at the heart of politics, loyalty and national identity play a strong role, especially for three of the largest groups: Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin.
Kikuyu, also known collectively as the Mount Kenya region, is the country’s largest and most efficient voting bloc. No Kikuyu topped the major party ticket for the first time since independence in 1963. But three of the four presidential candidates chose Kikuyus as their running mate to call that bloc.
But Vice President William Ruto effectively framed the conversation as one of “hustle against dynasties,” a class contest between the poor and the rich.
And analysts say that while ethnicity and church remain influential in elections, this could perhaps be the beginning of a change in dynamics in conversations around elections. .
“Class will certainly play an important role in this election, especially since the majority of the population is young, unemployed and without access,” said Nerima Wako-Ojiwa, chief executive officer. of Siasa Place, a youth-led nonprofit that engages young people, told Al Jazeera. “Many of them are living below the poverty line, so the majority of the poor and considered hustlers would identify with that story.
“This has been around since independence, we have a large population of poor people and that’s why the economy is at the heart of most manifestos,” she said.
Prisoners and people in the community
According to figures from the authorities, Kenyans in the community total about 3-4 million people. And there are an estimated 54,000 inmates spread across 134 correctional centers across the country.
Unlike in many other African countries, both groups of people are eligible to vote. This is in addition to the rest of the population over the age of 18 and has never been convicted of election-related crimes.
But it comes with a caveat: prisoners can only vote in presidential elections – not other local elections.
Prisoners first began voting in the 2017 election. This was after civil society groups went to court following the promulgation of the 2010 constitution to find a way for prisoners to register as sufficient voters. condition.
In January 2013, a Nairobi court granted their wish but it was too late for IEBC to include them in the 2013 election.
Before Tuesday’s election, the number of registered voters in the diaspora was 10,444 – more than double the number (4,223) in the previous cycle. The number of registered voters in prison was also 7,483, up 44 percent from 5,182 in the previous election.
Another community set to vote in elections are the Shonas, who have been stateless since arriving as missionaries from Zimbabwe in 1959, until two years before more than 1,000 officially became citizens. .
This is the first time they have voted in Kenya.