The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kenya Vote Backdrop Is Anger Over Living Costs, Debt

A vendor rests on a wall at a street market in the Kangemi district of Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. Kenyans will head to the polls on Aug. 9 to choose a new president in a contest pitting fifth-time contender Raila Odinga against William Ruto, a challenger who’s anchored his campaign on a rags-to-riches story. Photographer: Michele Spatari/Bloomberg
A vendor rests on a wall at a street market in the Kangemi district of Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. Kenyans will head to the polls on Aug. 9 to choose a new president in a contest pitting fifth-time contender Raila Odinga against William Ruto, a challenger who’s anchored his campaign on a rags-to-riches story. Photographer: Michele Spatari/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)

Kenyans will elect a new leader on Aug. 9, with the race between front-runners Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga too close to call. The winner will inherit a daunting set of problems: mounting public anger over soaring living costs, rampant unemployment, runaway state debt and a drought that’s left millions of people going hungry. Most previous elections have been dogged by violence and allegations of vote rigging, and investors are on the alert for any threat to the democratic process. 

1. How did we get here?

Outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta invested heavily in new rail links and other infrastructure, which helped shore up East Africa’s largest economy but also resulted in state debt jumping more than five-fold since he took office. The International Monetary Fund sees Kenya at high risk of debt distress. Inflation has been fueled by rising energy and grain prices stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the worst drought in at least four decades. Thousands of farmers have lost their crops and animals, and the United Nations estimates almost 3 million people are in urgent need of aid. 

2. Who are the key players?

Ruto, 55, started out in business by selling live chickens on a roadside, went on to own one of the country’s biggest poultry farms and expanded into hospitality and real estate. He entered politics in his 20s, securing a parliamentary seat in 1997. Ruto and Kenyatta were on opposing sides in a disputed 2007 vote that triggered ethnic fighting and the International Criminal Court charged them with crimes against humanity. Both men denied wrongdoing and the cases were eventually dropped due to a lack of evidence. Ruto then backed Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 elections on the understanding there would be a quid pro quo after the incumbent stepped down. But the two fell out in 2018 after Kenyatta switched allegiance to Odinga, 77. Odinga already came close to the presidency in 2007, when he and many observers maintained that he secured the most votes even though Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner. Odinga eventually agreed to become Kibaki’s prime minister under a power-sharing deal that helped to end two months of violence. Prior to going into politics, Odinga studied and taught engineering, and co-founded his own firm. Kenyatta, who is stepping down after serving the maximum two terms, remains a key power broker -- in part due to the influence he wields in his Kikuyu community, the largest of more than 40 ethnic groups in Kenya.

3. What are the candidates promising?

Ruto has pledged to channel more money into industries that have the potential to create jobs for the 5 million young Kenyans he says aren’t working or studying, including investing at least 500 billion shillings ($4.2 billion) in farming and in small businesses. He’s ruled out restructuring Kenya’s debt -- which Odinga plans to do to free up resources for development. Odinga’s other pledges include increasing social spending, delivering double-digit economic growth and paying 6,000 shilling monthly stipends to the country’s poorest households. Gender equality has been a key election campaign issue. Odinga picked former Justice Minister Martha Karua as his running mate, and she could potentially become the nation’s first female deputy president. Ruto has said half of the positions in his cabinet will be assigned to women if he wins.

4. Will the election be credible?

The electoral commission is adamant that problems experienced during previous votes have been ironed out. But campaign officials fear that replicas of booklets that are used to record voting tallies could be used to fabricate results -- a concern the commission says it has addressed. The commission meanwhile accused the police of interference after they arrested three people who were entering the country carrying voting material, but later said the issue had been resolved.

5. Could there be violence?

While tensions have risen in the lead-up to the vote, there are no discernible signs that the contest could degenerate into widespread violence, and most analysts see a low risk of that happening. The unrest that followed the 2007 election showed just how ugly the situation can get: At least 1,100 people died and about 350,000 were forced to flee their homes. The economy also took a hammering, with the growth rate slumping to 1.7% in 2008 from 7.1% a year earlier. Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, has warned that a failure to hold the police accountable for rights violations committed during previous votes makes a recurrence of such abuses more likely. 

6. How does the election work? 

The president and his deputy are elected on the same ticket for a five-year term. A candidate must win an absolute majority of the popular vote and at least a quarter of ballots cast in more than half of the nation’s 47 counties to avoid a run-off. The contest runs concurrently with the election of 47 governors, 47 senators and 290 members of the National Assembly. The final outcome must be announced within seven days of the vote. 

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

Loading...