Kenya Tests New Style of Politicking

In a media-savvy approach also marking the election, posters are giving way to soaring billboards such as this one in Nairobi, showing challenger Raila Odinga.
In a media-savvy approach also marking the election, posters are giving way to soaring billboards such as this one in Nairobi, showing challenger Raila Odinga. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 22, 2007

NAIROBI -- The modern, media-savvy political campaign has arrived in sub-Saharan Africa.

With Kenya's presidential election drawing near, campaigns here are for the first time making widespread use of opinion polls, text messaging, teleprompters, spin doctors, $15,000-a-plate fundraisers and even high-powered foreign political consultants such as Dick Morris, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, who swooped in for a few days to counsel opposition candidate Raila Odinga.

Across the capital, Nairobi, and the Kenyan countryside, plastered-up posters have given way to soaring billboards bearing carefully crafted images of the contenders. Campaign managers speak of "branding" their candidates and debate the finer points of message control. Business suits are being swapped for casual wear.

In one recent newspaper ad, President Mwai Kibaki, who is seeking reelection in Thursday's ballot, urged voters to do something unusual on a continent where politics is often dominated by distant, larger-than-life leaders: talk back, using their cellphones.

"Let's reason together," the ad read, beneath a homely photo of Kibaki in a plaid shirt, reading a book to two children. "SMS me your views -- my number is 2345."

While massive rallies remain the staple of electoral politics here, the new style of campaigning is being driven by such factors as the proliferation of cellphones and Internet connections and the flow of information from abroad. Kenyans in the United States are e-mailing in tips derived from the U.S. presidential race. A younger, more media-savvy electorate is also exerting influence, with Odinga's campaign, for instance, hiring a 20-year-old music producer from a recording company called Blue Zebra to work on its events.

But most significantly, many people here see such developments as reflecting a more open political system in Kenya, an East African nation that only recently emerged from two decades of repressive rule under President Daniel arap Moi, whom Kibaki defeated in 2002.

Odinga, the opposition front-runner, was jailed during the Moi years for advocating multiparty democracy. Now he is Kibaki's main opponent.

There is a new diversity in the news media. Moi controlled the only state-run television, whereas now there are three private broadcasters and dozens of radio stations.

And the idea of surveying opinions is no longer unthinkable. "We have expanded the space in terms of freedom of expression," said George Waititu, managing director of the Steadman Group, the largest polling firm in sub-Saharan Africa. "The electorate has a bigger voice to talk back. So I think it is an indicator of the state of democracy here."

People appear to be less thrilled with the role that big money is playing this time.

Kibaki recently held an unprecedented $15,000-a-plate fundraiser and has regularly hired helicopters for the campaign.

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