Specter of Violence Spurs Kenyan Vote Reform, Odinga Says

  • Main opposition CORD says ready to accept result of free vote
  • Ex-Premier Raila Odinga urges electoral commission overhaul

Unless Kenya’s government and opposition can agree to overhaul the electoral commission before a nationwide vote next year, East Africa’s biggest economy may be threatened with the type of disputes that erupted into widespread violence in 2008, opposition leader Raila Odinga said.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government agreed to reform the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission after Odinga’s Coalition for Reforms Democracy started a series or protests each Monday that triggered clashes with police in which at least five people died. The violence evoked memories of the political and ethnic conflict that erupted in 2008 after a disputed vote, claiming at least 1,100 lives.

“If we are beaten fairly, we are ready to come out and accept defeat,” Odinga, a 71-year-old former prime minister and three-time presidential candidate, said Tuesday in an interview at his office in Nairobi, the capital. “If it is manipulated then we will not accept it. The outcome is not in our hands; the ball is squarely in the court of government.”

Kenyatta, 54, will seek a second term in next year’s vote after teaming up with one-time rival Deputy President William Ruto to win power in 2013 under the banner of the Jubilee Alliance. Kenyatta is a Kikuyu, while Ruto, 49, is from the Kalenjin community. Both men were charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for targeting each others’ groups after the 2007 vote. Kenyatta and Ruto denied any wrongdoing and the cases were dropped for lack of evidence.

Biggest Challenger

Odinga, a Luo, poses the biggest challenge to Kenyatta’s rule. He maintained he was robbed of victory in 2007 and 2013 and said he “won’t allow, will not surrender to impunity.”

CORD wants the electoral commission to step down, its secretariat to be reconstituted and a new voters’ register to be in place before the vote. The number of commissioners should be cut to five from nine, and the opposition must be able to nominate two of then, Odinga said.

He declined to say if he would be CORD’s candidate for president in August 2017, saying “if people say I should run, I will run.” The opposition is also courting other political groups to broaden its base and appeal, he said, flatly dismissing claims it’s riddled with internal squabbles.

Different CORD

“Other partners who were not with us last time are likely to join this coalition,” Odinga said. “Going into elections, it will still be CORD, but a different CORD altogether.”

Fifty one percent of the voters would elect Kenyatta president in an election, compared with 28 percent for Odinga, according to an opinion poll conducted by Nairobi-based research firm Ipsos Kenya and published in the Star newspaper Monday. And 41 percent of those surveyed think it’s “very unlikely” that CORD will defeat Kenyatta’s Jubilee coalition in the next election, it said.

Nonetheless, Odinga was confident that disenchantment with the government’s performance is growing.

“You can see groundswell building up,” Odinga said. “The dissatisfaction with Jubilee, it’s real, not imagined. You could feel the anger of the people when we called off Monday demonstrations, people demanding that we should go on with these demonstrations.”

Expanding Economy

Nationwide voter disenchantment with the government over its failure to deliver on electoral promises is swelling the opposition ranks, he said. Benefits of economic growth aren’t trickling down to the majority of the population and the government’s Vision 2030 plan to achieve annual growth of 10 percent isn’t being achieved, he said.

The International Monetary Fund sees Kenya’s $61 billion economy expanding 6 percent this year and 6.1 percent in 2017, which would make it one of sub-Saharan Africa’s top five performers. The economy grew 5.6 percent last year buoyed by agriculture, manufacturing and construction. Kenya, the regional hub for companies including Google Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp., is the world’s biggest exporter of black tea.

Despite their political rivalry, Odinga refused to criticize Kenyatta personally, citing their families’ long relationship. His father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, served as vice president under Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta.

“Uhuru is like my younger brother; our families have a long history,” he said. “I know the weaknesses and the strengths and I really don’t want to talk about this as such. I am leading CORD and he’s leading Jubilee and I wish him all the best.”

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