‘They’ve wised up’: Kenyans go to the polls with a sense of indifference

Kenyans are heading to the polls in an election that pits the longtime opposition politician Raila Odinga against the country’s vice-president, William Ruto.

Odinga, 77, a former prime minister, has run a campaign centring on social protection and anti-corruption. He is backed by his former-nemesis, the outgoing president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who had a falling out with Ruto during his final term.

Odinga and Kenyatta put their long political rivalry to rest after a handshake in 2018, meant to signify that they were moving on from a bitterly fought, ethnically divisive elections in 2017 in an effort to unify the country.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, shakes hands with the opposition leader Raila Odinga after announcing an agreement to work together in 2018.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, shakes hands with leader Raila Odinga after announcing an agreement to work together in 2018. Photograph: Brian Inganga/AP

“The handshake was welcomed in certain quarters but received with scepticism in others,” says Murithi Mutiga, programme director for Africa at the International Crisis Group thinktank. He added that some critics saw Kenyatta’s efforts to influence his succession in favour of Odinga as a matter of parochial rather than national interest. Kenyatta and Odinga are from the country’s founding families and have significant wealth.

Ruto, 55, has had a political career spanning decades. The live chicken seller turned billionaire has been dogged by corruption allegations for years, though never indicted.

William Ruto addresses a crowd of supporters during a rally at Nyayo stadium in Nairobi on 6 August 2022.
William Ruto addresses a crowd of supporters during a rally at Nyayo stadium in Nairobi on 6 August 2022. Photograph: Daniel Irungu/EPA

He has positioned himself in the race as an underdog and a class warrior – a move that observers say gave him mileage in his efforts to take on the country’s most powerful political families.

The populist candidate has fronted a “bottom-up” economic model that he says would empower low-income communities.

With the country’s poor far outnumbering its rich and middle class – support along economic lines could shift the tides in Ruto’s favour. Kenya is a highly unequal country. Less than 0.1% of the population own more than the 99% of the country’s wealth, according to an Oxfam report. In Nairobi, more than 60% of the population live in overcrowded informal settlementsthat occupy just 5% of the total area of the city.

“Kenya has always been ripe for the kind of class politics Ruto has advanced,” says Mutiga. “Whether he wins or loses, he’s had a definitive impact on the public discourse around electioneering in Kenya.”

But ethnic politics are still at the centre of Kenyan elections. For the first time in more than a decade, there is no leading candidate from the Kikuyu community, the largest ethnic group in Kenya and one that has produced the majority of the country’s presidents. Analysts say that this has diffused ethnic tensions in the 2022 elections.

“Past elections tended to be quite divisive because they were essentially referendums on perceived Kikuyu elite economic and political domination,” said Mutiga.

With votes from the bloc up for grabs, competition for influence has been stiff, and both Ruto and Odinga have selected running mates from the Kikuyu heartlands of south-central Kenya.

But the tough economic realities facing Kenyans have pushed campaigning beyond ethnic and personality-driven politics. The cost of living has soared, along with unemployment rates and public debt, prompting growing criticism of the departing Kenyatta government.

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“The Kenyatta endorsement has been a mixed blessing for Odinga,” says Mutiga, adding that it had forced the latter to run a fairly conservative campaign. Odinga has been accused of softening his criticism of the government since the 2018 handshake.

While the elections are high stakes for the political elite, they have been met with only attracted loose public interest. Indifference persists among young voters and some are even boycotting the elections.

Analysts say there is public exhaustion over the shifting alliances. “It has inured the public from the excessive emotional investment they would attach to elections in the past,” says Mutiga.

“They’ve wised up to the fact that the political elite are divided by very little.”

The Guardian