Kenya’s complex election: a view from the ground

27 April 2022


Kenya is headed for one of its most contentious elections in August of this year. The two main presidential contenders, longtime opposition figure Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto, have established their political platforms and are currently in heated party primaries and coalition negotiations with smaller political formations. As the campaigning and political horse-trading enters full swing, two major issues have emerged.
The country is still grappling with reforming its political system characterized by dysfunctional consensus building amongst the political elite. These systemic dysfunctions drive zero-sum, interethnic, competition, resulting in institutional dysfunction and consecutive electoral crises. Following the handshake between President Kenyatta and Raila Odinga in March of 2018, this resulted in the unprecedented situation in which the opposition, under Odinga, has been working closely with the current administration while the Deputy President has taken on the mantle of the de facto opposition. The country has also found itself in a highly constrictive economic and fiscal environment that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Inflation and limited economic opportunities have resulted in cynicism from amongst the majority of the population towards the country’s traditional political class. 

Responding to the popular pulse

Odinga and Ruto’s approach to dealing with Kenya's significant economic challenges remain somewhat lacking in details as they have yet to release their final manifestos, something which will likely happen in June. Both candidates have so far hinted at their proposed solutions to the issue of growing inequality and relative deprivation in the country as they court the majority. Available indications of what Odinga’s economic platform will look like so far mirrors the usual rhetoric of value addition at home and more populist development promises to specific constituencies. He is also selling a monthly stipend of KSH 6,000 (around USD 60) to the most needy households, with a specific target being the country’s unemployed youth.  Ruto is proposing a shift towards bottom-up economic policies which aims to focus the government’s interventions on the ground rather than larger state and private sector institutions at the national center. According to the Ruto team, this would allow for investment and credit to flow to the ground without the mediation of what they deem as opaque political economy networks. 

Navigating between bold promises and key constraints 

Despite the promises that are being made by both candidates, however, whoever takes the reins of government will have to navigate significant constraints as they try to make good on them. The most significant constraint is fiscal. Kenya’s national debt has increased exponentially over the past five years due to structural inefficiencies that were significantly exacerbated by the pandemic. Further pressure from an ongoing drought and the geo-economic shocks from the war in Ukraine are also set to complicate the situation in the short to medium term. The promise of the youth as an electoral pivot towards a more inclusive political system has also faltered somewhat. A recent voter registration drive carried out by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) only managed to register a fraction of potential new voters, pointing towards a level of voter apathy on the part of the younger Kenyans. 

What to look for in the next four months

Odinga is currently struggling to cobble together a strong enough coalition that will allow him to win key constituencies, such as the contentious Mount Kenya region, whilst limiting the image that his primary political sponsor is the current president and his allies. The role of Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party in these coalition dynamics is key, as it jostles with Odinga’s ODM and other parties to act as the arbiter.  Ruto will have to convince other population segments outside of the popular majority that he can develop and implement a viable programme that both meets the needs of the average Kenyan while reassuring investors and the country’s foreign partners. Key to this will be his ability to ride on a wave of populist support without giving in to the caesarian impulse to consolidate power.  Given the situation ahead of the vote, while analysts are hopeful that Kenya can avoid the electoral crises and subsequent interethnic and political violence it experienced in 2007 and 2017, it is essential to ensure the integrity of the elections when the voters come out. With the population under significant economic pressure, high levels of perceived alienation from the state and deepening cynicism towards the country’s traditional elite, frustration could spill over if any indications of foul play emerge in August.