KENYANS go to the polls today in one of Africa’s biggest-ever elections. Some 19m voters will choose among 16,000 candidates for 1,882 positions—everything from president down to county-assembly member.
Like many elections in Kenyan history, the vote is looking fraught. Last week, one senior election official was found murdered, his body displaying signs of torture.
Nairobi, the capital, has emptied as people have crowded onto buses to their rural homes—some because they are registered to vote there, but many because they fear post-election violence. Running the poll costs some 49bn Kenyan shillings (about $480m); campaign spending may cost as much again, making Kenya’s election more expensive per person than America’s. So what is at stake?
The biggest prize is the presidency. The race is a dynastic affair: it pits the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, against Raila Odinga, the son of Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice-president.
Mr Kenyatta came to power in 2013, in Kenya’s first election under a new constitution adopted after post-election violence killed as many as 1,500 people at the end of 2007.
Previously he had been finance minister, and in 2002 he lost a historic election which ejected KANU, the party of dictator Daniel Arap Moi, from power. Mr Odinga served as prime minister in the government of national unity that followed the violence in 2007.
Mr Kenyatta boasts of having developed
Kenya: his government has invested heavily in infrastructure, including a
new Chinese-built railway connecting the coast to Nairobi. Mr Odinga’s
campaign has focused on the high price of food and the fight against
Yet policy differences matter less than ethnic politics. Kenyans tend to vote along tribal lines, hoping that politicians from their kin will be more likely to deliver government spending or help their businesses.
Mr Kenyatta belongs to the Kikuyu, Kenya’s biggest tribe, who have supplied three out of four of the country’s presidents, and whose elite members control much of the economy.
Mr Odinga is a Luo, a tribe from Western Kenya that has long felt left out of Kenya’s politics (and the spoils that come with it). Both candidates are desperate to win and their supporters may be willing to use violence to maximise their chances.
Mr Odinga is unlikely have another chance at the presidency. Mr Kenyatta has extensive business interests that could be threatened. Equally important is that his deputy, William Ruto, wants to run in 2022—and his chances would be destroyed if Mr Kenyatta loses.
All of this means that the mood is tense. But how the election pans out will depend on how close it is, and to what extent supporters of Mr Odinga feel cheated.
Kenya has a history of election-rigging, which means that many people will refuse to accept a close result. Even if violence is avoided at a national level, it could nonetheless marr local races for governorships and parliamentary seats, some of which are as hotly contested as the presidency.
There are some reasons to hope that Kenya will escape the worst. The security forces are better prepared than in 2007. Devolution has made the presidency less of a winner-takes-all race.
And many Kenyans have tried to neutralise the poisonous distrust between tribes that makes politics so vicious. Nonetheless, come 2022, the same tensions will probably re-emerge, and the country will once again quiver with fear as its people wait to vote.