Ethnic Divisions a Target for Planned Kenyan Opposition Alliance

  • Alliance sought between unions, civil society, main opposition
  • East Africa’s biggest economy set to hold elections next year

Former Kenyan presidential candidate and finance minister Musalia Mudavadi is spearheading the formation of a coalition with the country’s main opposition group that analysts say could beat President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ruling party in next year’s elections.

The so-called National Super Alliance will seek to bring parties including the main opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy together with labor unions, civil society organizations and business groups, Mudavadi said in an interview Monday in Nairobi, capital of East Africa’s biggest economy.

Campaign billboard for Musalia Mudavadi in Nairobi.

Photographer: Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images

The alliance’s goal is to transcend the ethnic fractures of Kenyan politics before presidential elections in August by emulating South Africa, where the ruling party is in coalition with the country’s main labor-union federation. Kenya remains haunted by the sectarian violence that erupted after elections in 2007 and claimed at least 1,100 lives. Kenyatta, who’s seeking a second term and his deputy, William Ruto, are from two of Kenya’s biggest ethnic communities -- the Kikuyu and Kalenjin.

Talks are centering around an alliance that won’t “look like a group of some ethnic communities coalescing to compete with another group of ethnic communities,” said Mudavadi, 56. “We are finding common ground. The talks are still fairly nascent and we hope we can build it carefully.”

While no opposition politicians have declared their candidacy, Raila Odinga, the leader of CORD who has run unsuccessfully for president on three prior occasions, is a potential candidate. The outcome of the last presidential vote in Kenya in 2013 was disputed by the opposition after Kenyatta obtained about 4,000 more votes than required to secure a first-round victory.

‘Game Changer’

The formation of an opposition alliance that unites CORD’s Odinga with Mudavadi could be a “game changer” in Kenyan politics, Machel Waikenda, a former director of communications in Kenya’s ruling party, said in an opinion article published in the Nairobi-based Star newspaper Nov. 1. Kenyatta beat Odinga with less than a million votes in 2013, while Mudavadi obtained almost half a million ballots.

“There has been an assumption that Uhuru stands a clear chance to be re-elected,” Waikenda said. If the alliance becomes a reality, “the opposition would form a force that can easily give Uhuru and Ruto a run for their money come August.”

An opinion poll commissioned by the Star newspaper and published on Monday found that 47 percent of Kenyans would back Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee party next year, compared with about 40 percent for the proposed alliance.

Joint Ticket

One stumbling block that the opposition parties might face is on who the flag-bearer might be, said Patrick Gathara, an independent political analyst in Nairobi. Odinga and Mudavadi are among a number of leaders who may be interested in vying for the presidency, including former Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula and ex-Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka.

“Everybody wants to run and given the histories of memorandums of understanding that are signed before elections and then thrown out afterward, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get them to agree,” Gathara said. “But if you did get Mudavadi in on a joint ticket, they they would be a serious threat.”

Mudavadi said the proposed alliance is working on identifying a number of “key pillars” that supporters from across the political spectrum can rally around, such as ensuring that the devolution of government to regional areas of the country becomes more entrenched. Another proposal up for discussion is that a different form of executive be created to replace the current two-person presidency, such as a system that had a prime minister, deputy prime minister and other posts to provide a more inclusive government for the country’s ethnic groups.

Constitutional Amendment

Any change to the current system of government would require an amendment to the constitution, which Mudavadi said would be put to a referendum if the alliance came to power.

Mudavadi has served in several posts in government, including as vice president under former President Daniel Arap Moi, deputy prime minister under president Mwai Kibaki, as well as minster of finance under Moi. He wouldn’t be drawn on who he thinks the flag-bearer will be if the alliance is formed, saying he’d prefer to keep it “a surprise” for the Jubilee party.

“It won’t be decided until close to the election,” he said. “We are not time-bound on that particular issue.”

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