The five key factors influencing Kenya Presidential elections


NAIROBI, Kenya | Kenya is heading into the General Election next week in which we could see new faces occupying various offices including the President. Others are the Deputy President, Governors, Senators, MPs and Members of County Assemblies (MCAs).

But for all the positions being contested, the presidential polls are the ones which everyone will be watching as there are distinct factors that often determine who wins.

Ethnic composition

Kenya, in spite of its relatively progressive democracy still falls back one ethnic arithmetic. This form of tribal politics has brought disaster before, including the eruption of post-election violence in 2008 after the disputed polls in 2007, as well as sporadic clashes in 1992 and 1997.

But politicians know its value. In the last four elections, no President has won the vote without coalescing around the biggest ethnic communities. Which is why the players in this election are mostly the same guys who were there in 2002. Known as tribal kingpins, they often lead their masses into a basket of votes, depending on a coalition arrangement. This year, President Uhuru Kenyatta from the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s most populous, has endorsed Raila Odinga from the Luo tribe. They were rivals in the past, but now they are pushing for an arithmetic that includes Kenya’s biggest tribe with Kenya’s fourth largest. In the middle of these are other communities such as the Luhya and Kamba who are somewhat divided on whether to back Odinga or his rival William Ruto. Ruto, from the Kalenjin tribe, the third biggest tribe, has been Deputy President to Uhuru, having led his tribe to vote almost to a man for Uhuru’s two terms.

While Kikuyu have often fronted top contenders in the presidency, they are now seen as matchmakers in this race. Both Ruto and Odinga have named running mates from the Kikuyu tribe, suggesting that both are keen to ensure the massive voting bloc is retained. For all their campaign pledges, it has been clear they want these key tribes, in a country of 50 million people, to be in their baskets.

Money makes the world go round

Kenya’s election is one of the most expensive not just to the electoral body but also to the contenders. The electoral commission (IEBC) will spend at least $250 million. But presidential candidates have to carry a burden too. Some backstreet estimates say a candidate must amass at least $20 million to successfully campaign in all corners of the country. That includes fees to register as candidates, branding, hiring of transportation choppers and cars as well as paying campaign teams. All presidential candidates are given all-round security by the government. But they cater for meals, stipend and branding of their campaign teams. None of the candidates has been clear on their source of funding and even the law that seeks to cap campaign financing is hazy. Ruto’s side has claimed supporters have been chipping in, mostly in non-monetary terms like fueling cars, or donating choppers. Odinga’s side has claimed their man is a well-off guy although two weeks ago he organised a dinner to fundraise. Guests paid Sh1 million ($8400) per plate.

The conduct of the electoral commission

Known by different official names since 2002, the main electoral body in Kenya (IEBC) is often in the eye of storm every election year. But perhaps the only time everyone was satisfied with their work was in 2002 when the longrunning ruling party KANU was voted out of power by a coalition of opposition parties. The Commission made mistakes in 2007, including inability to properly tally the votes. And the results were disputed. In 2013, the Commission’s conduct was also questioned but this time, opposition leader Odinga decided to sue at the Supreme Court. He lost but accepted the verdict nonetheless. In this coming election, the conduct of the IEBC could be the safety valve between disputed elections and violence. So expected is the challenge of IEBC that they even have a legal budget to defend themselves in court.

The Supreme Court

The Courts will be expected to deal with various election petitions but the presidential election is only handled by the Supreme Court which must deliver a judgement in 14 days of filing.

In the past, parties to petitions often accepted the verdict even when they did not agree with it. In 2017, the Court nullified the election of Kenyatta and ordered a repeat. The decision was based on the mistakes of the Commission, however. Which means that whatever decision the Supreme Court makes will also be an indictment or accolade on the IEBC.

The media

Kenya’s media have had a checkered history in these elections. In 2007, a commission of inquiry blamed the media for fueling post-election violence. A   radio journalist was one of the five people initially indicted by the International Criminal Court. Scarred by the accusations, the media decided to play lukewarm in 2013. It preached peace, calling for peaceful elections rather than free and fair elections. It decided to ignore controversies, for fear of being deemed inciters. This ‘peace journalism’ though meant that there was little watchdog on the conduct of the IEBC. Several Commission officials have since been answering corruption allegations from the procurements of 2013 and before. And a court in the UK sentenced the officials for the company that had been contracted by IEBC after they were found culpable of giving ‘chicken’ to Kenyan officials. In 2017, it would be more of the same as the media ignored controversial subjects. Locally, the joke in the streets is that they are described as ‘githeri media’, an insult derived from the way journalists focused on a man who queued to vote in 2017 while eating a meal of maize and beans (githeri) from a polythene bag. People make this joke to show that the media would rather go for the softer stories than controversy. But the actual issue is on balance, even the Media Council of Kenya recently admitted the media were giving more airtime to Odinga than his opponent Ruto.


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