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On August 9, Kenyans will vote for the presidency, national legislature, and county offices. This year’s national elections mark three decades of multi-party elections, and two decades since the end of Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year autocratic rule.
Historically, Kenya’s elections have been hotly contested, riven by ethnic divisions, large-scale violence, and allegations of election fraud. Legal challenges to the results have repeatedly gone to the Supreme Court, which actually annulled the August 2017 election results.
That contentious past will shape this year’s elections, but some important things have changed. Here are three things to watch.
Ethnicity may matter less than in past elections
Kenyans have historically voted for candidates who share their ethnic identity, which affects how politicians campaign. Since no single ethnicity makes up more than 50 percent of the country, candidates form ethnic coalitions and try to convince various ethnic communities they would benefit or lose should a given candidate gain power.
But for a few reasons, ethnicity may matter less this time.
First, this is the first election since Kenya achieved independence in 1963 with no Kikuyu presidential candidate. The Kikuyu are Kenya’s largest ethnic group; many regard them as the country’s most politically and economically powerful community. Of Kenya’s four presidents, three have been Kikuyu, including the current president Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the first president, Jomo Kenyatta.
But Kenyatta is stepping down – and is not supporting his deputy president, William Ruto, a member of the Kalenjin ethnic community. While Kikuyu and Kalenjin have often been political rivals, Kenyatta and Ruto ran together in 2013 to insulate themselves from charges brought by the International Criminal Court, which accused both politicians of inciting violence against the other’s supporters after the 2007 elections.
Rather than keep this alliance intact, Kenyatta is backing his longtime rival, the Luo candidate Raila Odinga. They’ve been rivals since the political rivalry between their fathers in the early post-colonial years. Odinga, leader of the main opposition party, has made four unsuccessful bids for the presidency. This will be his fifth attempt.
It shocked the country then, when Kenyatta and Odinga allied in 2018, with a now-famous handshake. These new alliances complicate ethnic voting, especially for Kikuyu who typically vote as a bloc. Without a Kikuyu candidate, they are divided between those who see Ruto as the workhorse behind Kenyatta’s term administration, and those who support Kenyatta’s decision to align with Odinga.
Second, for the first time, Kenyans seem to be discussing class differences. Ruto has been campaigning on the idea that ordinary hard-working Kenyans, whom he calls “hustlers,” have to fight back against “dynasties”—politically entrenched elites like Kenyatta and Odinga. Using the “hustlers versus dynasties” slogan, Ruto portrays himself as an anti-establishment man of the people.
Ruto’s populism matters at a time when the cost of living is the central issue. Kenyans have endured rising inflation, food shortages, and grinding poverty, all exacerbated by the pandemic, the Ukraine war, and drought.
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More diversity in political candidates
For the first time in Kenya’s history, a presidential candidate from a major party – Raila Odinga – has a female running mate. In fact, three of the four presidential candidates have women running mates. Odinga selected Martha Karua, a former justice minister referred to as the “iron lady” for thriving in a male-dominated political arena and for her staunch defense of human rights. Many women leaders see Karua’s candidacy as an important step in a country where women account for only 23 percent of the national legislative seats and female candidates endure threats and harassment.
But it’s not just women. More persons with disabilities are running than ever before, despite persistent prejudice and lack of resources. By one estimate, at least 300 of the 5,000 political aspirants in the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) primaries had a disability. This may reflect the influence of the Kenyan Inclusive Political Parties Program (KIPP) on party policies. Additionally, all major political parties now have robust Disability Leagues, caucuses that advocate inclusion and mobilize the estimated 4 million voters with disabilities.
Election violence is less likely
Elections in Kenya have often been marred by violence. In the 1990s, the ruling party attacked and burned opposition supporters’ homes to suppress turnout. After the 2007 general election, Odinga accused the ruling Party of National Unity (PNU) of rigging the election. Angry over an allegedly stolen election and about perceived Kikuyu dominance in politics and country, some opposition supporters attacked PNU supporters. Over 1,300 people were killed in the ensuing months of violence between PNU and ODM supporters and police. In 2017, Human Rights Watch estimates that over 100 people were killed before and after the August and October elections, as police attacked opposition protests.
As election day approaches, 17 percent of surveyed Kenyans express concern about serious violence. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) estimates a 53 percent likelihood of violence. Many Kenyans still blame other ethnic groups or past regimes for their lack of land; politicians have exploited that resentment to incite election violence. In drought-prone northern regions, some communities increasingly rely on violence to steal cattle and secure water and grazing space. In Nairobi, the capital city, residents fear the resurgence of Mungiki, a violent criminal gang that morphs into a political militia for pay during elections.
Additionally, 54 percent of Kenyans distrust the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the body in charge of elections. This heightens fears of election rigging and the possibility of violent protests against election results. Observers also worry that social media, Tik Tok in particular, is failing to monitor hate speech and disinformation.
Kenya’s democracy needs more than campaigns against vote-buying
But it takes a lot to convince ordinary people to attack others, especially acquaintances or neighbors. Politicians must persuade followers that the benefits of using violence, like defending status, property, or life, outweigh potential costs such as injury, arrest, or stigma.
What’s more, several factors may restrain violence, including a relatively strong and independent Supreme Court, a population that largely rejects violence, years of state and donor-funded investment in local peace and resilience-building programs, and the fact that the incumbent president is not running for re-election.
Kenya’s 2022 elections are shaped by old guard politicians, flawed political institutions, voter anxiety, and unresolved tensions. But if elections are peaceful, they will reveal a deepening democracy that, despite its fractures, is increasingly resilient.
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Jane (Mango) Angar is a PhD student in political science and a resident research associate in the Center on the Politics of Development at the University of California, Berkeley. She studies disability politics and election violence.
Kathleen Klaus (@KathleenKlaus) is an associate senior lecturer in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University and author of “Political Violence in Kenya: Land, Elections, and Claim-making”(Cambridge University Press, 2020).