Why is Kenya’s election important?

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Armed police officers guard Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission ballot boxes with counted votes in one of the tallying centers in Mombasa, Kenya, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. Kenyans are waiting for the results of a close but calm presidential election in which the turnout was lower than usual.

Gideon Maundu, Associated Press

Kenya’s presidential election is underway, with the preliminary tallies showing a very close race, according to Reuters. President Uhuru Kenyatta, approaching the end of his two-term limit, will likely be replaced by either Deputy President William Ruto, 55, or former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, 77.

As the ballots are counted, the international community watches with great interest, hoping for a peaceful transition of power in a country relied upon as a key source of stability in the region. Time reports that previous elections have been troubled by violence, political division, the spread of misinformation and voting system failures.

Why it matters

“Kenya’s August elections will undoubtedly be among the most consequential political events in Africa in 2022,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. “In a turbulent region, Kenya’s stability, economic muscle and diplomatic leadership are more essential than ever before.”

Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke at South Africa’s University of Pretoria’s Future Africa Institute to unveil the Biden administration’s sub-Saharan Africa strategy. In his speech, Blinken outlined the priorities the U.S. shares with African nations, including “revitalizing democracies, (and) strengthening the free and open international order.”

That is what is believed to be at stake in Kenya’s election. The shift of a policy where “Africa has problems and the United States has solutions,” is outdated, and Blinken instead suggested working together to face shared “21st-century threats to democracy like misinformation, digital surveillance (and) weaponized corruption.”

In an interview with Reuters, Chris Ogunmodede, associate editor at World Politics Review, indicated that the words should be taken in a larger context, and “Blinken’s visit was transparently aimed to trying to get the continent to take the West’s side against Russia.”

The cost of a fair election

“Ethnic-based political divisions, interference in key institutions, corruption and impunity have posed challenges to Kenya’s democracy,” according to the U.S. Department of State.

And these challenges have often been met with reforms. The 2007 election resulted in mass violence, which was triggered by “the questioning of results and the fairness of electoral institutions and heightened by ethnic cleavages and elite polarization,” according to the Brookings Institute.

Since that time, a new constitution was adopted which segmented the country into 47 counties. This will be the third election giving Kenyans the chance to vote for local officials, and the “devolution” of centralized power into a more regional model has aided in the de-escalation of political tension, per The New York Times.

While structural change may have helped to mitigate the effects of hateful rhetoric and misinformation, the integrity of voter systems was a problem that required huge investments of capital.

The New York Times reports that Kenya has one of the most expensive elections in the world. The ballots have more security features than the shilling currency notes, and the habitual claim that voting is rigged has forced the election commission to buy more expensive systems (fingerprint scanners, laptops, tablets able to stream voter data via satellite link).

Issues in play

Debt

Like many countries, Kenya has strained to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic hardships have brought the problem of the country’s reliance on Chinese lending to a head, according to Reuters. Often caught between world powers like the U.S. and China, the development of independent infrastructure is muddied by international pressure.

The current Kenyan government has declined to make its loan contracts with China public, though “Kenyans have frequently alleged that the China-funded projects are secretive, high in cost and debt creating,” per the Economic Times.

Polarization

The Council on Foreign Relations reports that in previous elections, candidates have been able “to weaponize ethnicity in the pursuit of a winning electoral equation,” as many tended to vote along lines of ethnic heritage (urban centers an exception).

However, this election appears different. In an interview with Time, Ken Opalo, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said “this time around ethnicity has not been as front and center as it used to be.”

Economic hardships

According to CNN, other issues of note include the historic drought in the region, “high food and fuel prices and mass youth unemployment,” in part a result of the food supply chain disrupted by the war in Ukraine.

What to watch

There has been a disappointing voter turnout, as many are disillusioned with the system. Reuters reports that “millions of Kenyans who chose not to register to vote; the commission had hoped to sign up 6 million but got less than half of that.” The commission has estimated a turnout rate of 60%, down by 20% from the previous election.

According to The New York Times, unregulated campaign spending makes some feel that elected seats are up to the highest bidder, as expensive advertising campaigns and tours win the most voters. This sentiment, paired with “voter frustration with government’s failure to tackle economic problems” is partly to blame for a lack of engagement, per Reuters.

The winner must receive over 50% of the vote, and the final results will be announced by Aug 16. According to The Associated Press “Kenyans have a week from the announcement of official results to file any court challenges,” at which time the courts have two weeks to provide a ruling. If the ruling is in favor of re-election, as was the case in 2017, it would be held within 60 days.

Collin Leonard

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