Kenya enters unchartered territories following rerun election

By Maina Kamau, Senior Consultant - Kenya (Photo credit: Reuters)

Nearly three months after Kenya’s Presidential election, the country is still mired in uncertainty. The events following incumbent President Uhuru Kenyata’s victory at the polls on August 8th have been unpredictable and unprecedented, leaving the country’s political future a guessing game. Kenya entered unchartered waters when the Supreme Court delivered a historic ruling annulling August’s election on the grounds of procedural irregularities, and ordered a new vote.  The ruling, the first of its kind in Africa, was hailed as a victory for an independent judiciary and transparent democratic process. Two weeks before the scheduled rerun, however, opposition leader Raila Odinga withdrew from the process, claiming not enough had been done to ensure a fair electoral process this time around and calling for a boycott of the election by his supporters. The day before October 26th’s rescheduled vote, a last minute petition was filed for another delay, but only two of the seven Supreme Court judges showed up, leaving the court unable to form a quorum and forcing Thursday’s vote to proceed. The re-run saw opposition supporters heeding to Odinga’s call, with remarkably low voter turnout – 42% compared to 80% in August’s election. Furthermore, voting in four counties – all Odinga strongholds – has since been deferred due to security reasons, and no new date has been set. For most voters, Odinga’s withdrawal made another vote seem pointless, and with such low turnout from opposition voters, it’s obvious that Kenyatta will walk away with victory again.

What happens next?

Another vote seems unlikely, as the Supreme Court will likely point to Odinga’s voluntary withdrawal from the process. His 45% showing in the original election, however, along with the efficacy of the re-run boycott, highlights a divide within the country and a significant portion of the population that will undoubtedly view Kenyatta’s victory as illegitimate. Most citizens and external observers’ biggest fear is that this will plunge the country into chaos, echoing fears of the sustained ethnic violence that occurred a decade ago as a result of another disputed election. A national crisis on the scale of 2007-8 is unlikely however, for a variety of reasons.

  • Police are more prepared this time around, already mobilizing to contain any trouble to those places usually affected, which should prevent violence from seeping out to surrounding areas
  • Two of the main ethnic groups opposing each other in 2007-08 are now allied by Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party
  • Odinga has been outspoken against mass demonstrations, calling instead for an civil disobedience in the form of an electoral boycott

The most likely scenario is a protracted political stalemate between Odinga and Kenyatta, who has reportedly already reached out to the opposition to propose a compromise. While Odinga has been adamant that he will not accept a coalition government, his options of legal recourse are growing slim. Furthermore, he has most recently proposed a boycott of companies aligned with the government, which may be going a step too far for his supporters. Those companies include Safaricom, the nation’s largest telecommunications provider and a service that most Kenyans rely on not just for communication, but more importantly for the exchange of money. Odinga’s call for its boycott will most likely be seen at best as impractical and at worst as hurting the very base he is trying to rally. Similarly, Kenyatta will face external pressure from the international and business communities, who view Kenya as a strategic economic and security hub in an increasingly volatile region. There will likely be heavy protests and uncertainty over the next few weeks, but we are cautiously optimistic that with the exception of the most virulent opposition supporters, we will see a return to business as usual in the new year.

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