Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election
Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election
Report 197 / Africa

Kenya’s 2013 Elections

Preparations for elections in Kenya turn into high gear today as the parties in the three major coalitions nominate their candidates.

Executive Summary

Kenya’s elections this year should turn the page on the bloodshed of five years ago, but the risk of political violence is still unacceptably high. A new constitution, fresh election commission and reformed judiciary should help. But the vote, now set for 4 March 2013, will still be a high-stakes competition for power, both nationally and in 47 new counties. Forthcoming trials before the International Criminal Court (ICC) of four Kenyans for their alleged role in the 2007-2008 post-election violence look set to shape the campaign. The potential for local violence is especially high. Politicians must stop ignoring rules, exploiting grievances and stoking divisions through ethnic campaigning. The country’s institutions face fierce pressure but must take bold action to curb them. Business and religious leaders and civil society should demand a free and fair vote. So too should regional and wider international partners, who must also make clear that those who jeopardise the stability of the country and region by using or inciting violence will be held to account. 

Many reforms were initiated to address the flawed 2007 polls and subsequent violence. A new constitution, passed in a peaceful referendum in August 2010, aims to fortify democracy and temper zero-sum competition for the presidency by checking executive power. New voting rules require the president to win more than half the votes and enjoy wider geographic support. Power is being devolved to 47 counties, each of which will elect a governor, senator and local assembly. Despite recent mishaps, the new Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) still enjoys public trust. Judicial reform, including the appointment of a respected new chief justice, also augurs well for a more robust response to electoral fraud and disputes. 

The new institutions, however, have their work cut out. The ICC proceedings are influencing political alliances and the campaign. The four individuals facing trial deny the charges and maintain their innocence. While the cases aim to erode impunity long enjoyed by political elites and may deter bloodshed, they raise the stakes enormously. The two most powerful of the accused, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, look set to contest the elections on a single ticket (Kenyatta for president, Ruto for deputy president). Both have politicised the ICC cases, deepening ethnic polarisation, and have accused Prime Minister Raila Odinga, their strongest opponent, of conspiring with foreigners against them. 

The Kenyatta-Ruto alliance would be a strong ticket. Aware that Kenyans want an end to impunity, both have pledged to comply with the ICC, even if they win. Yet, regardless of the outcome of their cases, a president facing lengthy trial before the ICC could potentially have extremely damaging implications for reform and foreign relations, which Kenyatta’s backers should ponder carefully. For the moment, their eligibility to run for office remains in doubt; a case challenging their compliance with new constitutional requirements for public officials’ integrity is with a high court and may find its way by appeal to the Supreme Court. Were the courts to find Kenyatta and Ruto ineligible after the closing date for submitting nomination papers on 30 January, their supporters would be unable to choose alternative candidates, which might lead to strong protests and even spark conflict. Dealing as it does with a highly charged political issue, whichever way it goes, the final decision is likely to be contentious. If possible, the date of any decision should be announced in advance so the security agencies and others can prepare accordingly. 

Other signs are also troubling. Political parties and politicians flout new rules unchecked. The IEBC’s bungled procurement of voter registration kits reduced the confidence it previously enjoyed and suggests it may struggle to resist enormous pressure as the vote approaches. The late start to registration has cut all fat from the electoral timeline, and any flaws will heighten tension. The IEBC must work transparently with parties and other stakeholders to clarify and regularly review the timeline, so as to avoid any further – and highly-charged – delays.

Voter education will be crucial. It is the first general election under the 2010 constitution, with new rules that are considerably more complex than previous polls (each voter will cast six ballots). Limiting confusion and misunderstandings could help reduce disputes and election-related conflict. It is also vital that the IEBC provide sufficient access and information to citizen observers and other civil society groups. They must be able to plan their deployment properly and enjoy full access to every part of the election process, especially the tallying of results. Such groups can also be useful allies in bolstering commissioners’ ability to resist political interference.

Insecurity too poses a huge challenge. Despite the reforms, many structural conflict drivers – continuing reliance on ethnicity, competition for land and resources, resettlement of internally displaced people (IDPs), and poverty and youth unemployment – underlying the 2007-2008 violence remain unresolved and may be cynically used by politicians to whip up support. Many of those who fled the turmoil remain displaced. Land disputes feed local tension. Youth unemployment is still very high and, together with poverty and inequality, means a steady flow of recruits for criminal groups and militias that can be mobilised to intimidate opponents and their supporters or protest results, as they have in the past. Attacks blamed on the extremist Al-Shabaab movement and clashes over land can cloak political violence. Meanwhile, police reform has lagged and the security forces look ill-prepared to secure the polls. An experienced inspector general of police, David Kimaiyo, has been appointed, but the delay in his selection means little time remains for significant security reform. Multi-agency security planning, which has also lagged, must be completed and implemented. 

Ethnic campaigning and horse-trading as alliances formed – by Kenyatta and Ruto but also other leading politicians – have deepened divides. How the supporters of either of the two main tickets, those of Deputy Prime Minister Kenyatta and former cabinet minister Ruto running and of Prime Minister Odinga and Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka respectively, would respond to losing a close vote it perceives as flawed, or even to early signs it is falling behind, is unclear. International partners, including regional neighbours whose economies rely on a peaceful transition, should monitor any signs of interference or violence and weigh in quickly to deter it. Devolution, for all its benefits, introduces new conflict dynamics, as competition between groups for power and resources controlled at county level becomes fiercer. 

All these challenges are surmountable, especially given the remarkable determination of most to avoid a repeat of 2007-2008. But they require concerted action by Kenya’s institutions and their allies, and – most important – clear signals to leaders who are seen to be prioritising the pursuit of power. The people deserve better. To put the horror of five years ago behind them, they deserve the chance to vote without fear and elect leaders committed to reform and ready to serve society as a whole rather than the narrow interests of its elites.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 January 2013

Banners of Kenya's opposition leader and presidential candidate Raila Odinga, and Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto, also presidential candidate, are seen in Kericho, Kenya, July 30, 2022. REUTERS / Baz Ratner
Q&A / Africa

Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election

Kenya’s highly anticipated vote featuring two political heavyweights, Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto, is likely to be closely fought. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Meron Elias outlines what is at stake.

What is happening?

Kenyans are due to vote on 9 August in a high-stakes election that has polarised the country’s political elite. The election pits Deputy President William Ruto, who will be trying for the top office for the first time, against Raila Odinga, the veteran head of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement. As deputy president, Ruto once seemed to be the heir apparent, but he has fallen out bitterly with President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is serving his second and last term. Instead, Kenyatta backs the candidacy of his own long-time rival Odinga, who has made four previous attempts to win the presidency.

Polls show a mixed picture in the contest between Ruto and Odinga. One closely watched polling firm, TIFA Research, found that Odinga has carved out a lead in recent weeks, with 49 per cent to Ruto’s 41 per cent. Another survey, by the Radio Africa Group, concluded that the race is a dead heat, placing Ruto at 45 per cent, one point ahead of Odinga.

Kenyan elections are almost invariably hard-fought, but the Odinga-Ruto showdown has been unusually unpredictable in part because deal-making among Kenyan elites has upended old alliances. Kenyatta, who clinched the presidency in 2013 and won re-election in 2017, was expected to endorse his deputy Ruto, who backed him in both those campaigns. Instead, Kenyatta forged a partnership with Odinga soon after the 2017 vote.

The reshaped electoral chessboard means the outcome will probably come down to the degree to which Odinga and Ruto can muster support outside their respective bases.

The reshaped electoral chessboard means the outcome will probably come down to the degree to which Odinga and Ruto can muster support outside their respective bases. Ruto is strongly ahead in his Rift Valley backyard, while Odinga enjoys an unassailable lead in Nyanza, where he traces his roots. The picture is more complex in the vote-rich Mt. Kenya region, north of Nairobi, which has produced three of Kenya’s four post-independence presidents. There is no major candidate from the populous central highlands this time around. Ruto has shown surprising strength in this region, where Kenyatta has traditionally been dominant. The deputy president remains well ahead in polls, though without anything like the huge majority that Kenyatta won in 2017. Odinga, while trailing Ruto in the region, has raised his poll numbers to between 25 and 30 per cent, up from the single-digit figure he recorded in 2017. Odinga hopes that improvement in this region will make up for his losses to Ruto in his long-time strongholds in western Kenya and the coast. Ruto’s chances, meanwhile, rest on him scoring a convincing win in Mt. Kenya while eating into Odinga’s support in the western, coastal and northern parts of the country. Another key issue to watch will be whether two less prominent contenders, George Wajackoyah and David Mwaure, can peel enough votes away from the two main candidates to force a run-off.

What is at stake? 

Although the campaign has been largely peaceful, its tone has sharpened in the final weeks. Not just the two main candidates but also the outgoing president view the race in existential terms: they see winning as a matter of political and economic survival. Ruto, though now vastly wealthy, has parlayed his humble background into a campaign image as a “hustler”, an everyman who understands the needs of ordinary Kenyans, unlike Kenyatta and Odinga, the dynastic successors of Kenya’s first president and vice president, respectively. Ruto and his running mate Rigathi Gachagua have promised to tackle the “state capture” they say has occurred during the Kenyatta presidency, an implicit threat to investigate the Kenyatta family business empire’s ties with the state. But Ruto could face investigation himself, should Odinga prevail, into the source of his wealth (the political stakes, given his relative youth at 55, are arguably lower for him). Odinga, 77, will be making his fifth and likely final bid for the presidency. Portraying himself as a safe pair of hands who will unite the country, he has also vowed to root out corruption. He chose the respected anti-graft crusader Martha Karua, the first woman to run for deputy president on a major ticket in Kenyan history, as his running mate. In the eyes of his supporters, winning would reward him for his great personal sacrifices, including a long spell in detention in the 1980s, in the quest for a more democratic Kenya.

The two sides have traded ever more pointed barbs over the past few weeks. Attack billboards have sprung up and concocted accusations have flown on social media. Kenyatta and Ruto in particular have launched tirades against each other. On 31 July, government spokesperson Cyrus Oguna condemned politicians for stoking tensions and urged the two front-runners’ teams to dial down their rhetoric.

The most severe drought in 40 years has sharpened communal hostilities in the hardest-hit areas.

Aside from the presidential election, Kenyans will also choose among thousands of candidates for national and county assembly member seats, representatives to the senate and county governorships. Contests for the latter post tend to be particularly pitched, considering the devolved powers and control of resources governors enjoy under Kenya’s constitution. In some places, the contests have already turned violent: in the northern county of Marsabit, the national government imposed a curfew following deadly clashes between local communities. The most severe drought in 40 years has sharpened communal hostilities in the hardest-hit areas, as Crisis Group reporting recently found. There have also been reports of attacks on women candidates on the campaign trail, despite the progress for gender representation indicated by Odinga’s nomination of Karua.

Although tensions may flare in some localities, the principal threat to stability lies in a disputed presidential outcome. Should the winner clinch the presidency by only a narrow margin, the declared loser may reject the result. Ideally, the aggrieved loser would turn to the courts, but if instead he calls supporters out into the streets they could clash with police. Communal violence might also ensue.

Are institutions prepared for the exercise?

The main questions about preparedness concern the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). This body, which runs the balloting and tabulates the votes, suffered a blow to its credibility after the 2017 presidential election when the Supreme Court annulled the results, citing the commission’s failure to conduct the vote in conformity with the constitution and electoral law. The IEBC has promised to learn from its mistakes, with Chairman Wafula Chebukati saying it will ensure the election is transparent by offering agents of all parties’ access to vote tallies at polling stations.

Surveys show high public trust in the IEBC (TIFA’s poll found 74 per cent of respondents have either “a lot of” or “some” confidence), but a combination of state pressure and its own missteps has hobbled its preparations. First, parliament failed to approve the funding the commission requested to run the elections in time, delaying preparations including staff recruitment. Secondly, state-aligned media and senior officials have launched attacks on its credibility, casting doubt on its capacity to conduct the vote. Authorities on 21 July arrested foreign contractors who had come to Kenya at the commission’s invitation for supposed immigration violations. Critics view these moves as attempts by the state apparatus to intimidate the IEBC. For its part, the commission has a clumsy communications strategy, rarely informing the public about its internal workings in a proactive manner, drawing accusations from both major candidates’ camps that it is not acting with the requisite transparency.

Police have committed a number of electoral code violations.

Security forces are another key player. For most of the campaign, they have behaved with restraint. In the final weeks, however, police have committed a number of electoral code violations, including blocking Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza alliance members from reaching a number of campaign venues.

On the plus side, Kenya’s judiciary has built on the public trust it earned with its unexpected annulment of the 2017 vote, alongside a number of subsequent decisions barring an attempt by Kenyatta and Odinga to change the constitution. Defeated candidates may well turn to the Supreme Court again this time.

What should be done?

Kenyan elections matter well beyond Kenya. The country is East Africa’s main transport and commercial hub and a violent breakdown following polling could have reverberations in the neighbourhood. As Kenya is a democratic bellwether in the region, a smooth election could be a powerful example to fellow governments that peaceful politics has more to offer than the personalist authoritarianism that has become common in the region. It has also positioned itself as the site of potential peace talks to end the war in northern Ethiopia and already hosted talks among parties to the conflicts in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Both initiatives could run aground in case of a prolonged crisis. 

The 2022 election cycle has had many encouraging features, notably that social tensions have been strikingly low. Yet intense elite polarisation – and the likelihood that the losing candidate will reject the outcome, especially if the election is close – means that all actors need to take steps to prevent the election from veering into violence. In particular, authorities should permit public institutions, notably the IEBC, the space to administer the election without interference. They should stick by their pledge not to shut down or slow the internet, as doing so would impair the commission’s capacity to transmit results electronically to tallying centres. Security forces should maintain strict neutrality.

The electoral commission should communicate the steps it is taking to ensure the vote’s integrity.

The electoral commission should communicate the steps it is taking to ensure the vote’s integrity. Its chairman should hold press briefings to apprise the public of developments on election day and every subsequent day until it announces the final tallies. It should open its systems to scrutiny by political parties to reduce mutual suspicion. Electoral officials and other authorities should also ensure that party agents have full access to polling stations including – as the chairman pledged – during the vote count. Foreign and Kenyan observers should also be granted access. Odinga and Ruto should commit to turn to the judiciary rather than the streets if they are dissatisfied with the vote’s conduct or the outcome. Even at this late stage, a commitment by both not to act vengefully against each other – or against the outgoing president – upon taking the reins of power would help ratchet down tensions.

The Horn of Africa can scarcely afford another crisis with so much of the region in ferment. Kenyan authorities, the IEBC and other institutional leadership, the judiciary and the major candidates should all do their part to ensure a peaceful vote by acting with restraint – and fairness – as Kenyans go to the polls.