Kenya’s opposition candidate makes gains on incumbent president
Realignment of political forces and fears of tribal violence ahead of August 8th election
Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga, the presidential candidate of the National Super Alliance (Nasa) coalition, at a campaign rally in Nairobi, Kenya . Photograph: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
A major realignment of political forces has taken place in Kenya as two leading contenders – including the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta – battle it out to secure the country’s presidency in next month’s election.
Kenyatta is banking on the multiparty coalition that took him and his deputy president, William Ruto, into power in 2013 to help them secure a second term in office on August 8th.
In 2012 the pair announced that, to prevent the type of bloodshed that gripped the general election five years earlier from taking place in the 2013 poll, they would form the Jubilee Alliance coalition to contest it.
Kenyatta is a member of the Kikuyu tribe, and Ruto is Kalenjin. The two were bitter rivals in the run up to the disputed 2007 general election, which was followed by widespread intertribal violence that left an estimated 1,300 people dead.
They were prosecuted at the Hague-based International Criminal Court for inciting their respective tribes to carry out the atrocities. However, the prosecutions were later abandoned due to a lack of evidence.
The ruling Jubilee Alliance unveiled its 2017 election vehicle, the Jubilee Party, last year. In total 13 parties were dissolved in September so their members could commit to the new formation and its structures.
The majority of Kenya’s 47 million citizens come from the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo, Kamba, Kisii, Masaii and Meru tribes and most political parties are aligned along tribal lines.
Since the first multiparty elections took place in Kenya in 1992 only two – in 2002 and 2013 – were deemed untainted by intertribal violence provoked by political leaders aggrieved at the outcome.
The Jubilee Alliance draws much of its support from the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes, which are the first and third largest ethnic groups in the country respectively, according to census figures from 2009.
To counter the Jubilee Party’s efforts to consolidate its grip on power this year, a number of opposition groups have also united.
The National Super Alliance (Nasa), which comprises six major opposition parties and many smaller ones, was formed in January. By April it had chosen Raila Odinga, the leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), as its candidate to take on Kenyatta for the presidency.
This will be Odinga, a Luo, fourth attempt to become Kenya’s first citizen, having lost the presidential race in 1997, 2007 and 2013. In the unity government that was formed after the disputed 2007 poll, Odinga held the position of prime minister.
Kenya’s Independent Election and Boundaries Commission has approved eight candidates to run for the presidency, but Kenyatta and Odinga are the main contenders given the size of the alliances they front.
Nasa is expected to draw significant support from voters who are predominately Luo, Luhya, and Kamba.
Since campaigning officially got underway on May 31st both groups have been touring the country relentlessly in search of support. And both have campaigned heavily in counties perceived to be their rivals’ power bases.
Intriguingly, as the election has drawn closer, the significant lead that Kenyatta held in the opinion polls at the beginning of this year has begun to shrink dramatically.
In January, three months before Nasa announced Odinga as its presidential candidate, an opinion poll put support for the ODM leader at 30 per cent compared to Kenyatta’s 47 per cent.
However, by mid-May the same polling company had increased Odinga’s support among the 2,026 registered voters surveyed to 42 per cent, against Kenyatta’s 47 per cent.
Other polls are showing similar trends in terms of the tightening of the presidential race. So it appears that the formation of the Nasa coalition has had the desired effect of galvanising support for the opposition movement’s challenge to Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party.
Kenya’s Star newspaper stated on May 31st that “this means Kenya for the first time could be staring at a presidential run-off, with none of the leading contenders likely to secure 50 per cent plus one vote in the first round”.
The campaigning is also being fierce fought at the county level because of the national government’s decision to begin devolving power to 47 newly formed counties five years ago.
As part of this change, the counties’ elected officials will help to manage local infrastructure development and maintenance projects. However, the process has also fuelled corruption, say transparency organisations, because the new county budgets are swollen with incoming cash.