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  • Writer's pictureMia Dancey

Could the most recent Kenyan election ring in a brighter future for its democracy?

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

On August 9th, Kenyans elected 55-year-old Mr William Ruto as president in an election season that some have described as Kenya’s most “boring”. Mr Ruto’s “Hustler nation” campaign proved victorious over that of his opponent, Mr Raila Odinga, who was running for president for the fifth time. Although this election was not without its scandals, 2022 has largely broken with Kenya’s electoral violence and corruption record, potentially signalling a turn for the country’s democracy.

History of Kenyan Elections

Kenya has historically struggled with democratic elections. Despite achieving independence in 1963, the country only held its first multiparty election in 1992, having previously lived under President Moi’s one-party state. Moi’s tenure characterised the type of violent, corrupt elections with which Kenyans would soon become familiar. In both the 1992 and 1997 elections, Moi manipulated ethnic tensions to further his presidential campaign, leading to nationwide ethnic violence.

Though the 2002 elections, which unseated Moi were less violent than the previous two, 2007 again saw an explosion of mass violence; ethnic tensions resurfaced in the presidential race between Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki. Mr Odinga accused the proclaimed victor of the election, Mr Kibaki, of engaging in electoral fraud – a view supported by international observers. Protests erupted across Kenya, and ethnic violence targeted at the Kikuyu people – Mr Kibaki’s ethnic group – blossomed in the Rift Valley.

The 2007 elections can easily be considered Kenya’s most violent to date; 1,400 people were killed, and 600,000 were displaced. Several top Kenyan politicians – including Mr Ruto, who was then Odinga’s running mate – were brought before the International Criminal Court on charges of fuelling this violence (the charges were later dropped against Mr Ruto).

The 2013 elections passed surprisingly peacefully, but a scandal emerged again in 2017 over widespread accusations of electoral corruption surrounding Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory. The discovery of the murdered head of IT at the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC, Kenya’s electoral body) supported these accusations. When the Supreme Court annulled the results and called for a re-election, Kenyatta’s opponent, the eternal presidential candidate Mr Odinga, refused to participate on account of the IEBC’s corruption.

The 2022 elections

Given this history of violence and corruption, elections in Kenya are a nerve-wracking season. Schools close, businesses shut down, and everyone battens down the hatches in preparation for what is to come. However, this year’s election has defied Kenyans’ expectations.

In an effort to increase transparency and trust, the IEBC released 46,229 forms containing the results of the regional elections. The IEBC publicised these forms on their website, allowing the media and the public to count the votes alongside the commission. The IEBC’s vote-collecting system has also been compared to blockchain for its transparency and trustworthiness. These efforts helped the IEBC ensure the robustness and openness of this election.

Despite these changes, there have still been accusations of corruption surrounding this year’s election. An IEBC official’s murdered, and tortured body has recently been found in Nairobi, but no connection has yet been made to the election’s results. Some IEBC members have claimed electoral tampering and refuse to endorse the results.

However, as noted by Aly Verjee in an article for the United States Institute of Peace, the debate is regarding the voting percentages, which were rounded to two decimal points instead of three or more – the difference being marginal and not producing any significant change to the election outcome. Mr Odinga still plans to challenge the results in court. Even in the face of these qualms, the media and international observers are mainly satisfied with the electoral process and have accepted Mr Ruto’s win.

The future of Kenyan democracy

The 2022 electoral process has given Kenyans a glimmer of hope for future elections. Though this year’s voting was still marred by the typical mechanical inefficiencies of the IEBC – such as broken voter identification kits and damaged ballots – Kenyans are satisfied with the commission’s more transparent and robust voting procedure. Many believe this system may be replicated and even improved for future elections.

Additionally, this year marked an interesting change in the types of campaigns promoted by presidential candidates. 2022 saw proposed reforms to marijuana legislation, national healthcare, and even a proposed social protection fund. Despite the reduced voter turnout, pundits hope these more progressive campaigns will draw greater public attention and curb growing voter disenchantment – especially amongst the educated, unemployed youth who represent a significant portion of Kenya’s population.

Another remarkable change to this year’s election was the increased number of women on the ballot. Three of the four presidential candidates had female vice-president runners. Across the country, more women were elected to MPs, governors, and senators' positions than in previous elections. This marks a positive increase in female Kenyan political power, and many hope this will lead to a more gender-balanced Kenyan government.

Though this election has strengthened belief in the Kenyan electoral system, citizens are increasingly using political activism to make their voices heard. In 2017, activists filed a successful constitutional petition against the IEBC, increasing voting transparency. Patrick Gathara – a Kenyan reporter for Al Jazeera – said of the case, “If [this] signals that the youth are abandoning the political rituals of their parents and opting for other, more effective modes of engagement with governance in the years between elections, then it would be welcome.”

Kenya also is seeing a diffusion of power away from the executive branch of the government and a strengthening of its judicial system. After years of centralisation, the 2010 Kenyan constitution has paved the way for dismantling the overpowered executive branch. The Kenyan Supreme Court’s ruling against the 2017 election results also reveals this balancing of government branches and may lead to greater presidential accountability.

Viewed in its totality, these most recent elections paint a bright picture of future Kenyan politics. Civilians may expect a more robust and transparent electoral procedure, more progressive presidential campaigns, more women in politics, more political activism, and more political accountability as the balance of power is restored between the three branches of government. While this may be an optimistic view, Kenyans are certainly relieved that there has been barely any violence associated with this election. They may hope election season will be greeted less with gritted teeth than hope for future change.

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