All Eyes on the Ballot: Kenya’s Presidential ElectionsBy Suraiya az-Zubair // Monday, March 4, 2013
Earlier this month, the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson, made the remark that “choices have consequences,” with regard to the March 4th elections in Kenya. He was interpreted by many to be referring to the two candidates who have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) – Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto – and the detrimental effect their being elected could have on Kenya’s diplomatic relations worldwide and their ability, if elected, to rule effectively while under a cloud of indictment. Similar remarks by European Union envoys have led to accusations from Kenyan officials that they were inflaming an already volatile political situation and illegitimately interfering with a sovereign nation’s domestic affairs.
The Kenyan reaction to these comments is, to some extent, understandable. Strained diplomatic relations are not the only, nor even the most worrying, consequences Kenya may have to deal with in the wake of its elections. The Kenyan government’s first obligation is towards its people, and recent experience has shown that the humanitarian and economic ramifications of a troubled election can be devastating. The aftermath of the electoral battle between Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki in 2007 resulted in 1,200 deaths, and hundreds of thousands more displaced, in a period of intense violence linked to the closely contested vote. Local businesses and foreign investors who are vital to Kenya’s growth faced huge losses, and prices of household goods increased by 20-30% in the weeks following the election, even in those provinces not directly affected by the violence.
Fears that the 2013 election will have a similar outcome are widespread. The two frontrunners, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta are once again almost level in the polls and many of the issues underlying the 2007 crisis, a crisis that had mirrored similar levels of violence in earlier elections going back to 1992, have not been fully addressed or resolved. Clashes between groups of various ethnicities continue to be documented this last year, with over 200 deaths in the lead up to the elections. Both Kenyatta and Odinga have also run campaigns that are widely regarded as ethnically based. Although Kenyatta is the only presidential candidate to have been charged by the ICC, many believe that Odinga also played a part in the crisis that developed after his electoral loss. Together they represent a “recycling” of the old guard, and a lack of real political progress.
But appearances can be deceiving, and the questions regarding the personal histories of the presidential candidates mask some of the real institutional progress that has been made in Kenya. A new Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has been created to oversee the elections, and a respected, widely trusted new Chief Justice has been appointed. Further constitutional changes put in place to detract from the ‘zero sum’ nature of the political system, including limits on the immense powers of the executive, devolution into 47 counties, and new electoral rules, mean that a candidate’s popularity must be evenly spread across the country, rather than concentrated in a few regions among a single ethnic group or coalition of groups. The winning candidate not only needs to get 50% plus of the national vote, but 25% of the vote in all counties.
To argue that these institutional changes are tantamount to a radical break with the old political system would be to oversimplify the complexities of Kenyan politics. The new constitution, signed by President Mwai Kibaki on the 27th August 2010 had hopes running high once again, in a way reminiscent of the nation’s spirits after the election of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) in 2002. The frustration of these hopes, the lack of promised constitutional reform, and the reoccurrence of corruption and electoral malpractice was one of the underlying factors in the 2007 violence.
But now, with a new constitution in place, problems with implementation are already surfacing. The electoral process detailed in the constitution may, in itself, be a source of confusion and delay. Voters are now required to choose on six different levels of government, and the clause responsible for broadening the candidate’s accountability across the nation is likely to result in a runoff election.
A further addition to this year’s election has been the two presidential debates, in which eight presidential candidates were given a platform to put forward their positions on a range of topics for the first time in Kenyan history. The first, held on February 11 tackled two of the most contentious issues of the campaigns so far: ethnicity, and the indictments made by the ICC. The second, held on February 25, saw the candidates discussing land reform, corruption, and inequality. The intended emphasis of the debates was on politics, rather than personality. The two moderators, Julia Gichuru and Linus Kaikai did very well, and pushed the candidates to talk about uncomfortable issues. However, the responses to the two debates tended towards platitudes and finger pointing. Even the leading candidates seemed unwilling to put forward strong policy positions on the topics that would affect Kenyans most. This should not come as a surprise. Any controversial moves at this late stage in the campaign could mean a loss of votes for the candidate.
What has been particularly encouraging, however, is the reaction to the debates. Millions of Kenyans watched around the country and abroad, and responded enthusiastically on social networking sites, resulting in “KEDEBATE2013” trending worldwide on twitter. This eagerness to engage in the political discussion is a sign of democratic reform that runs even deeper than constitutional change.
Other signs of this shift from the 2007 atmosphere are becoming more common. For example, there is a 10 car commuter train spray-painted with messages and images of peace that now runs through Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa and the setting for massive outbreaks of violence after the last Kenyan election. Another is this video, in which a diverse group of Kenyan celebrities urge caution and promote peace in different Kenyan languages.
Elections and institutional reforms alone are not enough to change the political fabric of a country, whether for good or ill. Lasting change can only come about through a change in the electorate; through education and active citizenship. Kenya’s choice on March 4, will not only be between those candidates running for election, but also a choice for peace and democracy, and this will not be as easy or straightforward as casting a ballot. There are very real grievances that must be addressed, and a great deal is at stake. The progress that Kenya’s democracy has made so far shows that, on some level, the choice has already been made. Monday has given both Kenya and the world a chance to see what more needs to be done.
*This post was written by the Africa Program and Leadership Project staff. Main contributions by Suraiya az-Zubair, and edited by Elise Barry.