Kenya’s August elections will undoubtedly be among the most consequential political events in Africa in 2022. In a turbulent region, Kenya’s stability, economic muscle, and diplomatic leadership are more essential than ever before. But Kenyan leaders will be increasingly focused inward as election day grows nearer, and an electoral process that takes a wrong turn could threaten the country’s capacity to continue playing a pivotal regional role going forward. The country’s recent history features hotly contested, sometimes violent elections in which candidates and their allies have used identity politics to divide the electorate and turn Kenyans against one another.
Already, the path to the election has been bumpy. First it featured a failed (for now) attempt to restructure the state and electoral spoils in the form of the Building Bridges Initiative. Then came a new election law that facilitates the knitting together of party coalitions, changing the political landscape months before polling. Already, the two main contenders for the presidency, Raila Odinga and William Ruto, have accused each other of foul play, such as attempts to disrupt campaign events or accepting dodgy campaign funding. The stage is set for a bruising political fight.
Odinga is a known quantity engaged in his fifth campaign for the presidency. In the past five years he has gone from the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta’s bitter rival to Kenyatta’s preferred successor. Meanwhile, Ruto, who is technically Kenyatta’s deputy and was once the incumbent’s close political ally, is now at odds with the president. He is running as an agent of change, an outsider in solidarity with Kenya’s working class despite his current role in government, his decades as a parliamentarian and cabinet minister, and his substantial fortune.
The fluidity of these political identities, combined with the familiarity of the personalities involved, looks to be breeding some cynicism among voters. A lackluster response to repeated voter registration efforts signals a distinct lack of enthusiasm among potential first-time voters—a massive cohort in youth-heavy Kenya. Despite a positive growth outlook, many Kenyans are still reeling from the economic devastation of COVID-19 and frustrated by corruption in government. They need government that performs and is accountable to them, just as foes of authoritarian governance in the region need more democratic champions that can deliver results. Thus far, the upcoming Kenyan elections do not look like a strong match for the many hopes pinned upon them.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.