Kenyan elections are losing their shine| Elections


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Kenyans are in the race with polls less than one month away. The country is currently stricken by election fever, despite a cautious start. The running mates have been chosen and the party manifestos published. Campaigns are at each other’s throats, the government is playing favourites and the media is giddily sensationalising it all. The electorate is salivating at the promises of a good life, with everything from free money and health to amazing new industries such as cannabis and hyena testsicle exports.

It was different a few short months ago. It has not shown the same political mobilization and zeal as previous contests. John Githongo is a prominent anti-corruption activist who also publishes The Elephant, an online news analysis magazine where I work. He 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”.

Martha Karua was nominated as Raila Odinga’s running-mate. This is the first time a major coalition has chosen a woman to be its top ticket and it seems to have given life to his otherwise stalled campaign. After the announcement, a poll showed that the ticket had taken the lead in the race. According to the most recent polls, Odinga and Karua still lead the race by six points.

The current Deputy President William Ruto is their main competitor for State House. He also chose his running mate in May, Rigathi Gachagua. Rigathi is a businessman who was once his personal assistant to President Uhuru Kenyatta.

This should make it an easy choice for Kenyans on paper. 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 is also a well-respected politician who has been a strong opponent to authoritarianism as both a lawyer and an opposition legislator.

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. Ruto is plagued by corruption allegations and has not yet been able to explain the source of his extraordinary wealth. His running mate was also an official of the government during the worst days under 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. Ruto, who is a veteran of two decades in government, will find this difficult. But unlike Kenyatta (and Odinga), he is not part 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. It is not about change but rather, it’s about them being able to enter the realm of power. Where they had previously been either silently or grudgingly tolerated corruption and other abuses of state power, today they actively seek its approval and delight in its abuses.

Odinga or Karua enjoy the benefits of a party state, despite their Constitution requiring them to be neutral. When they are silent about Kenyatta giving state honours to his family and trying to forcefully seize land belonging to a university and give it over to the World Health Organization it blurs the distinction between reformers as well as their opponents.

For the Kenyan electorate, who is used to hypocritical politicians shifting their stances to the wind, this is nothing new. 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. This was a scam.

The new thing is ApathyIt seems that this has infected large parts of the electorate with many.Refusing registrationeither as voters or to support one side or another. Elections, especially presidential elections, have been touted as the way to democracy and prosperity for over 30 years.

This could be simply a reflection 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”. The most recent example StudyAccording to a report last year, the decline can be dated back to 1960s. It is attributed to voter fatigue and generational change, as well as increased number of elections. Since the dawning of the millennium, Kenya has seen a rise in the number of ballots. This includes constitutional referendums and repeat presidential elections. It also allows for votes for devolved governments, assemblies, and many by-elections.

The 2010 Constitution created a sense of hope and excitement that has led to a decrease in turnout. According to Prof Karuti Kanyinga of University of Nairobi’s Institute for Development Studies, the turnout has never exceeded 70% in the 18 years prior to the Constitution’s adoption. In fact, the 2002 election that toppled the KANU dictatorship saw the lowest turnout. That election was attended by only 57% percent of registered voters.

The 2010 referendum saw a 72% turnout. That number jumped to 85% for the 2013 elections. It then dropped to a remarkable 79 percent for 2017’s annulled contest. Maybe the current apathy is simply a reflection of the rational exuberance around the 2010 Constitution and all the changes it would bring about. It could be a realization that elections are unlikely to bring about real and lasting change, much like they were in the period before 2010.

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


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