BusinessDay

As Kenya decides…

I am not so sure I have been this eager about an election as I am about the Kenyan presidential election today (August 9). Raila Odinga, scion of the Odinga family and Kenya’s former prime minister, is quite literally in a battle of his life, as this is perhaps his last chance to become president.

William Ruto, Kenya’s deputy president, has put in his all as well. There must be something in Kalenjin culture that makes its politicians so good at the craft. Mr Ruto, a Kalenjin, has risen against significant odds, especially from the establishment, to be in the reckoning against Mr Odinga, who the establishment supports. As the last time a Kalenjin was president, he ruled for more than two decades, a highly superstitious Kenyan elite is probably jittery.

In any case, a clear win by either of the two frontrunners in the first round is probably unlikely. A runoff is a strong possibility. Even so, the eventual winner will likely prevail with the thinnest of margins. And the aftermath will almost certainly be litigious, as neither Mr Odinga nor Mr Ruto will accept defeat without a fight.

A runoff is a strong possibility. Even so, the eventual winner will likely prevail with the thinnest of margins. And the aftermath will almost certainly be litigious, as neither Mr Odinga nor Mr Ruto will accept defeat without a fight

Opinion polls in the last week of campaigns put Mr Odinga ahead. But there are populist undercurrents that Mr Ruto has latched onto that resonate with a lot of poor Kenyans, who are typically underrepresented in these opinion surveys. There is significant animus towards the Chinese over jobs.

Mr Ruto has made promises that appeal to the masses in cities that chafe at Chinese success in ordinarily menial and retail jobs, that in fairness will irk any jobless local.

The other major electoral issue relates to the Chinese as well: debt. Mr Ruto has no plans to restructure Kenya’s burgeoning indebtedness to China, unlike his main rival, Odinga, who not only plans to do so but will probably take on more debt in tandem.

Yes, corruption and the rising cost of living are probably more important concerns. Faced with the reality of a strained fiscus, I am convinced neither Mr Ruto nor Mr Odinga will act irresponsibly. As almost all leading Kenyan politicians live in proverbial glass houses, a genuine crackdown on corruption is not a move either of the main candidates will risk in victory either.

Tribal and regional loyalties have been translated into political alliances that will almost sharply divide the votes roughly in half between the two main protagonists. So close an election outcome tends to be in favour of the establishment candidate.

Mr Odinga is thus well placed to win, especially as a poll showing him leading by a signficant margin just before the elections, prepares the populace for his potential victory. The palpable determination of Uhuru Kenyatta, the outgoing Kenyan president, to hand over to Mr Odinga is also a key factor.

Their fathers, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, and Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice-president, who were once political allies in the fight for independence, fell out with each other later on, thus forcing the senior Odinga into opposition. Jaramogi, as Mr Odinga’s father was popularly called, died without fulfilling his dream of becoming the president of Kenya.

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This is a key motivation behind Mr Odinga’s repeated attempts, his fifth this time around, at clinching the presidency. Besides, Mr Kenyatta seems convinced that Mr Ruto is not likely to continue his legacy, after so much bad blood between them for much of their decade in power together. Still, Mr Ruto is a relatively young politician with significant financial resources.

Whatever the outcome of the polls, Mr Ruto will be a key player in the next government. In the event he loses, he will be leading a strong opposition that Mr Odinga will need on side for key policy decisions. As Mr Ruto will almost certainly make it his life mission to make Mr Odinga a one-term president in that event, the next five years may be one of stasis for Kenya.

Mr Odinga also secured a key win going into the election. A high court ruled just about a week to the polls that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) should maintain a paper voters’ register as a backup to the electronic one it had planned to use exclusively for the election to prevent rigging.

Consequently, when conditions at a voting centre make the use of the electronic register impossible or impracticable, which is a scenario easily within the mischief of politicians, a resort to the manual paper register will now be acceptable owing to the court judgement.

Kenya’s electronic election process has been an African exemplar, with Nigeria following suit for its upcoming 2023 elections. Allowing room for a manual paper register opens the door to rigging, which tends to be in favour of the establishment candidate.

While it may still not significantly sway the results one way or the other, it may be the factor that enables the establishment to ensure that the winning margin is wide enough to avoid a rerun. These considerations suggest Mr Odinga may be the next president of Kenya.

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