Cautious Kenya prepares for tense 2022 elections

Millions of Kenyans will head to the polls next Tuesday for elections, as two veteran politicians battle a fierce battle for the presidency.

Memories of violence during previous elections loom, the country faces a cost-of-living crisis, worsening inequality and a severe drought.

Four candidates are vying for the top job, in a tight race between the top candidates, Vice President William Ruto and Raila Odinga, the opposition leader now backed by the ruling party.

Propaganda campaigns dominated with mud-slinging, fake news, and the practice of dumping free potential voters including umbrellas, groceries, and cash.

There is speculation that Kenya may have its first presidential election, and fears are growing that if the losing candidates challenge the results, the row could turn into street violence.

“It is very difficult to determine who will win an election because it is a neglect of who can … be the most emotionally attractive” to voters, said Macharia Monini, professor of history at United States International University in Nairobi.

The two main contenders are familiar faces: Odinga, 77, served as prime minister from 2008 to 2013, and Ruto, 55, became vice president in 2013.

But Ruto – long a successor to President Uhuru Kenyatta – saw his ambitions thwarted when his boss shook hands with long-time rival Odinga in 2018.

Kenyatta, who has served two terms and cannot run again, threw his weight behind Odinga on August 9, giving him access to the ruling Jubilee Party’s powerful election machinery.

However, the handshake dealt a blow to Odinga’s anti-establishment credentials, prompting suggestions that he had effectively traded his independence for Kenyatta’s support.

Joining the presidential contest are attorneys David Moore and George Wajakoya – the latter an eccentric ex-spy who wants to legalize marijuana.

Kenyans will also choose senators, governors, legislators, women’s representatives and about 1,500 county officials.

‘Indifference leadership’

The political games fueled frustration, especially among Kenyan youth.

About 22 million people registered to vote, but the number of young voters is down compared to the 2017 poll.

“Politics doesn’t seem to solve problems, it just drives apathy,” said Alex Oetti, an independent public policy researcher.

“So (the voters) think it doesn’t really matter, the next president, the next senator, the next governor are going to do what the other guy did last time,” he said. France Press agency.

Odinga vowed to tackle endemic corruption, noting that Roto’s deputy in the elections is battling a corruption case.

Meanwhile, Ruto – who has a poverty-to-riches background and an ambiguous reputation – has targeted the “dynasties” that run Kenya – in reference to the Kenyatta and Odinga families, who gave the country its first president and vice president.

Ruto has positioned himself as the “master scammer” and champion of the downtrodden in a country where three out of ten people live on less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank.

Kenyans, already affected by the Covid pandemic, are struggling to buy basic foodstuffs as the war in Ukraine has sent prices soaring.

“Customers who used to buy many items…stop now,” said Peter Kepaschia, a fruit and vegetable seller in Nairobi.

The 40-year-old father of three told AFP that any profit goes directly to household expenses.

“There is no savings at the moment.”

Economic pressures may compete with tribal loyalties as a major factor driving voter behaviour, according to some observers.

With neither Roto nor Odinga affiliated with the dominant Kikuyu tribe, which has produced three of the country’s four presidents, the elections will open a new chapter in Kenya’s history.

If Odinga wins, his running mate Martha Karua will become Vice President, the first woman to hold that position.

‘Pray for peace’

Concerns remain about the threat of violence – a reflection of the dark shadow cast by the 2007 elections, which were followed by a horrific frenzy of politically motivated ethnic clashes that left more than 1,100 people dead.

Odinga’s challenge to the result of the 2017 elections was met with a violent police response that left dozens dead.

Both ballots are believed to have problems, with the Supreme Court ordering a rerun of the 2017 elections, citing widespread irregularities in the counting process and mismanagement by the Electoral Commission.

Concessions are rare in Kenya – no presidential election result has gone unchallenged since 2002.

The Commission for National Cohesion and Integration, a peacebuilding body set up after the 2007-2008 clashes, said there was a 53% chance of violence during the election period.

Schools have already closed their doors while some supermarkets are urging customers to stock up in advance.

Diplomatic sources expressed cautious optimism, but as pressure mounted on the Electoral Commission to ensure free and fair elections, voters remain cautious.

“The situation is shaky,” said Susanna Napura, a 22-year-old student and first-time voter.

“But we will pray for peaceful elections.”

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