Old Foes Square Off in Kenyan Election Déjà Vu: QuickTake Q&A

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Supporters of the National Super Alliance (NASA) party hold a giant photo of the party's candidate Raila Odinga, in Nairobi

Photographer: Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images

Kenya’s Aug 8. presidential elections will be a rematch of the 2013 race, which pitted Uhuru Kenyatta against Raila Odinga. That vote saw Kenyatta squeak to victory in the first round and the Supreme Court reject Odinga’s allegations of rigging. This time, five of the main opposition parties have united to form the National Super Alliance and thrown their weight behind Odinga. With violence and intimidation having overshadowed four of the six elections held in Kenya since the advent of multiparty democracy in 1991, the East African nation’s ability to stage a peaceful and credible vote will be as keenly watched as the outcome.

1. How does the vote work? 

The president and his deputy are elected on the same ticket for a five-year term. To avoid a run-off, a candidate must win an absolute majority of the popular vote and at least a quarter of ballots cast in more than half of the nation’s 47 counties. Seven parties are fielding presidential candidates, while 11 independents are also standing. The presidential contest will run concurrently with the election of 47 governors and senators, and 290 members of the lower house.

2. What are the opinion polls and analysts saying?

The elections are set to be a two-horse race between Kenyatta and Odinga. Forty-nine percent of 3,430 potential voters canvassed from May 2 to 14 in a computer-aided phone poll commissioned by Radio Africa Group said they would vote for Kenyatta, down from 51 percent in a March survey, while 40 percent said they would back Odinga, up from 24 percent. In a separate poll conducted from Jan. 9 to 26 by Nairobi-based Ipsos Kenya, 66 percent of 2,057 adults interviewed expressed “a lot” or “some” confidence in the incumbent, while 51 percent said the same about Odinga -- whose candidacy had yet to be declared at the time. Ahmed Salim, Dubai-based vice president at Teneo Strategy, sees a chance of a run-off because mounting discontent over a drought-induced spike in living costs may push support for Kenyatta below the 50 percent mark.

3. What is Kenyatta’s record?

East Africa’s biggest economy has expanded an average 5.7 percent a year since 2013, as the country reaped the benefits of lower energy prices and improved transport links. Kenyatta’s administration has also spurred growth by encouraging the development of the tourism, agriculture, services and manufacturing industries, and made some headway in improving access to education and health care. His opponents accuse him of not doing enough to cushion the poor from the drought and soaring food prices and failing to stamp out widespread corruption. Kenya dropped six places in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index last year, ranking it among 30 countries seen as the world’s most corrupt.

4. What’s Odinga promising to do differently?

While political parties have yet to release their election manifestos, Odinga has made the fight against corruption and poverty the centerpiece of his campaign. He’s said he’ll ensure that as much as 45 percent of all government revenue will be allocated to county authorities, triple the amount provided for in the constitution. He’s also pledged to step down after serving a single term to make way for another National Super Alliance leader.

5. What are the key issues?

Respondents in the Ipsos survey said high living costs, corruption, a lack of jobs and the drought were the country’s most serious concerns. 

6. What else could sway voters?

Ethnic loyalties and politicians’ personalities have tended to prove the decisive factors in Kenya’s previous elections. Kenyatta will be looking to tap support from his fellow Kikuyu, the largest of more than 40 ethnic groups, and will be relying on his running mate, William Ruto, a Kalenjin, to secure backing from the fourth-largest group. Odinga commands strong support among his fellow Luo, the country’s third-biggest group, and is banking on the wide ethnic diversity of the National Super Alliance’s other leaders to widen his support base. There’s a risk that Odinga’s three previously unsuccessful bids to secure the presidency may result in apathy among his potential supporters, according to Jared Jeffery, an analyst at NKC African Economics in Paarl, South Africa. Less than half the National Super Alliance’s supporters agree with the choice of Odinga and running mate Kalonzo Musyoka as its flag-bearers, according to Ipsos.

7. How big is the danger of violence and a disputed result?

About 180,000 personnel from the Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission, the police, the National Cohesion & Integration Commission and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority will be deployed to avoid a repeat of violence triggered by a dispute over the outcome of the vote in 2007. The unrest left at least 1,100 people dead and forced 350,000 more to flee their homes, while causing Kenya’s growth rate to slump to 1.7 percent in 2008 from 7.1 percent a year earlier. Since campaigning began last month, there have been at least 23 incidents of violence, two people have died and more than 60 have been arrested.

The Reference Shelf

  • A who’s who guide to the main political players.
  • Ipsos opinion polls.
  • A Bloomberg story on the election challenges confronting the ruling party in the Rift Valley and another on the drought and resultant food shortages.
  • A National Democratic Institute statement on the election preparations.
  • A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch report on what happened in the 2007 election.
  • A Bloomberg QuickTake wonders whether the U.S. can catch up to Kenya on mobile payments.
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