Kenya is preparing for the first general election since the disputed contest in 2007, and the weight of expectation – both domestic and international – is huge.
The country’s international reputation as a safe, stable democracy with a burgeoning economy and good international ties built on commerce and tourism was ripped away by the violence that followed the 2007 election. Over 1,000 Kenyans died in inter-communal clashes, and almost 700,000 were displaced.
The election on 4 March will be the most complex that Kenya has ever faced. This is the first election since the new constitution was introduced in 2010 as part of a process of reform aimed at addressing some of the grievances that contributed to 2007’s violence. Since independence in 1963, political power in Kenya was becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of an ever-narrowing group of elites close to the presidency.
To address this, the 2010 constitution initiated a process of devolution and Kenyans will now vote for six representatives on polling day. However, the process of educating voters about their new civic rights and the counting of votes has not been tested on a national scale. At a recent Chatham House event, speakers expressed concern that preparation by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was insufficient, undermining voters’ confidence that the elections will be conducted in a free and fair fashion.
There are not only practical challenges to the election. In January 2012, the International Criminal Court (ICC) confirmed charges against four prominent Kenyan political figures for their alleged role in organizing the violence which blighted the last elections. Those accused of committing crimes against humanity include the presidential candidate and current Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, and his running mate, the leading politician William Ruto.
Debate about the ICC’s indictment rages on in Kenya and has become something of a political football. During a recent televised presidential debate, current Prime Minister and presidential candidate Raila Odinga quipped that Kenyatta would find it difficult to run Kenya’s government via Skype from The Hague. While some Kenyans see the ICC’s involvement as illegitimate and ill-informed international meddling, it is undeniable that the Court’s involvement has had a bearing on the electoral campaign. The clearest sign of this is the uniting of Kenyatta and Ruto on a Jubilee Alliance ticket. These political figures, and the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities which they respectively represent, were on opposing sides at the last election, and their collaboration lessens the chance of ethnic violence between the communities they represent.
Many of Kenya’s international partners have had to tread a delicate line between supporting the ICC process as the best means for finding justice for the post-election violence in 2007, and not appearing to favour any presidential candidate. The dedication of technical assistance to the IEBC by 23 High Commissioners and ambassadors may prove to be the sort of international involvement that is welcomed by the majority of Kenyans.
Kenya’s importance in East Africa will also be thrown into relief if the election is badly-run or met by violence. The port at Mombasa is an economic lifeline for land-locked countries in the region, and so reports that Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan are stocking up on fuel and food in case election violence disrupts the flow of goods from Mombasa, do not come as a surprise.
Prolific discussion of the elections in Kenya’s active media outlets and on social media demonstrate how significant the March elections are for Kenya. Open debate plays a significant positive balance to the potential pitfalls of the process. The smooth running of these elections would go some way to restore the international reputation of the country, but far more important would be what it signifies for Kenyans – that the process of improving political representation and dismantling a culture of impunity is well underway.
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The ICC Intervention in Kenya, Programme Paper, February 2013
Kenya Ahead of the Election, Transcript, January 2013