Since multi-party democracy returned to Kenya in 1992, voting at election time has largely divided itself along ethnic lines. In 2007, when President Mwai Kibaki narrowly edged out Raila Odinga under a cloud of suspected vote tampering, the country descended into violence. The perception of blatant manipulation fomented bloodshed, as ethnic groups attached to the candidates attacked each other. Peace came slowly and only after a coalition government was formed elevating Odinga to Prime Minister.
In the aftermath, a country fearful of further division began making changes to the electoral process. Transparency was the watchword, with a new constitution establishing an Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. A presidential debate was also introduced, so candidates could communicate their proposals and people had more opportunities to make a decision based on policy instead of affiliation.
The new processes finally acknowledged that the Kenyan electorate is looking for substance. But even with the new procedures and institutions in place, voters aren’t getting an issues debate – at least not from the frontrunners.
Raila Odinga, who is in the running again as the head of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), maintains a slim lead in most polls, though under the 50 percent margin that would avert a run-off election between the two top finishers. The other frontrunner, Uhuru Kenyatta – son of the country’s first president – heads the Jubilee Coalition, while six other candidates round out the field.
The Prime Minister’s campaign is convinced he can still win a first-ballot victory. If he does manage this, it will have to come from a huge turnout in his strongholds, though, because little effort is being made to change voters’ minds in other areas. As the candidate hopscotches the country, he is not using issues to engage undecided voters or the electorate that has defaulted to his opponents because of ethnic affiliation.
In its final month, I have been following the campaign as it travels around Kenya. Last week Odinga’s team announced a rally in Embu, a town in central Kenya at the edge of Kenyatta’s heartland. By noon a small crowd rested in the shade of the concrete grandstand, as the candidate’s team pitched tents and rolled out a red carpet. Though Odinga wouldn’t show up for another four hours, the group of voters had time to burn. They were Kenyatta supporters almost to a person, but they were also unemployed and bored and several were willing to give Odinga a chance to persuade them why they should change their vote.
Specifically, they were looking for a jobs plan – an explanation of how Odinga would bring industry to Embu and its outlying areas so they could get to work. Instead, they got a series of speeches from local candidates and leaders excoriating Kenyatta, followed by a short message from Odinga himself. Job creation was mentioned, but only in broad strokes, as if he was just reading from his manifesto. Then the candidate was off, a cloud of dust from his helicopter coating the people sheltering in the grandstand.
The Odinga campaign is content to operate under the traditional system of personality politics. The real work went into building the national coalition, with an expectation that the ethnic bases would follow their leaders. It seemed Odinga was in Embu mainly to remind people that current Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka is running on the CORD ticket for the same seat. Embu is near Musyoka’s hometown. During the stop it was Musyoka’s face that was plastered on cars and hung on walls. That, more than issues, was supposed to convince Kenyatta supporters to change their vote.
It also explains the prominent inclusion of Moses Wetangula in the CORD alliance, with his influence in the Luhya community – the second largest in Kenya.
The decision to run on personalities and coalitions is clearly a strategic gambit. But Odinga has the team in place and the resources to run a different kind of campaign. To send volunteers out to explain his platform in detail.To take advantage of technology and provide savvy voters with a wealth of information and encourage them to engage more with the campaign. To run the kind of issues-based effort the changes to the political system were clearly trying to inculcate.
Ahead of the election, advisors said Odinga was focusing on engaging voters, participating in radio call-in shows and holding town hall meetings. But as election day draws closer, the campaign has shifted exclusively to rallies. Though largely substance-free, they project strength and pressure supporters to come out and vote.
It’s a strategy they’re convinced will work. And despite the changes to the system, it likely will. There has not been enough change to erase the notion that voting is an ethnic affair, even in an electorate that is demanding details.
In the aftermath of the country’s first-ever presidential debate earlier this month, polls tipped Kenyatta and Odinga as the night’s victors. While the two got the most screen time, they stuck largely to the platitudes they have been issuing at campaign rallies and in their literature.
On street corners in downtown Nairobi the following afternoon, though, it wasn’t Odinga and Kenyatta people wanted to talk about. It was Peter Kenneth. At a gathering of vendors, civil servants and students, calling itself the People’s Parliament, they were raving about Kenneth, the businessman turned politician, who used the debate to speak with precision about a range of issues and ask pointed questions of his opponents.
Viewers were impressed, but no one was planning to vote for him. The reason being that they don’t believe he has a real chance of winning. A vote for Odinga or Kenyatta felt like more of a guarantee of victory – even if that victory doesn’t necessarily come with the policies the voter is looking for.
Still, the chatter about Kenneth could signal the beginning of the end of the kind of campaign Odinga is running. If in five years voters find little has changed, they might start to ask more of a candidate than where he is from and who is in his alliance. A sparkling debate performance could then deliver more than a bit of street corner kudos.
Andrew Green (words) and Will Boase (photos) are following the CORD Presidential campaign for the Kenya elections.
A full set of Will’s photos can be viewed on Flickr here.