Explained: Why the Kenyan presidential election matters

Kenyans will elect a successor to President Uhuru Kenyatta on Tuesday after a decade in power. The race is tight and could go into a runoff for the first time.

One of the frontrunners is Raila Odinga, an opposition leader in his fifth presidential bid who is backed by his former rival Kenyatta. The other is William Ruto, Kenyatta’s deputy who has fallen out with the President.

Both tend to focus much more on domestic issues, raising questions about how they will follow Kenyatta’s diplomatic efforts to quell tensions in neighboring Ethiopia or disputes between Rwanda and Congo.

What’s at stake?

Kenya is the economic center of East Africa and home to around 56 million people. The country has recently experienced turbulent elections. Even then, it stands out for its relative stability in a region where some elections are highly contested and longtime leaders like Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni have been declared victors by nearly 99% of the vote or widely were accused of physically cracking down on competitors.

Kenya has no transparency on campaign donations or spending. It is estimated that some candidates for Parliament and other posts spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain access to power and its benefits, both legal and illegal.

Nasibu Abdul Juma Issack, whose stage name is Diamond Platnumz, wears a hoodie with the face of Kenyan presidential candidate Raila Odinga as he performs at Odinga’s final campaign rally at Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi, Kenya on Saturday August 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

What are the main platforms of the candidates?

Ruto, 55, advertises himself to the young and poor as a ‘hustler’ who rose from humble beginnings as a chicken seller in contrast to the elite backgrounds of Kenyatta and Odinga. He strives for higher agricultural productivity and financial inclusion.

Agriculture is a major driver of Kenya’s economy and around 70% of the rural workforce is employed in agriculture. In his final campaign speech on Saturday, he said if elected his government would use 200 billion shillings ($1.6 billion) a year to boost job opportunities.

Odinga, 77, famous for being jailed decades ago fighting for multi-party democracy, has pledged cash donations to Kenya’s poorest and more accessible health facilities. In his final campaign speech on Saturday, he said that if elected, his government would begin paying 6,000 shillings ($50) to families living below the poverty line within the first 100 days.

What do voters care about?

Odinga and Ruto have long been contenders for the presidency, and there is a certain apathy among Kenyans, especially among the younger generation in a country where the average age is around 20. The electoral commission took in less than half of the new voters it was hoping for, just 2.5 million.

Key issues in any election include widespread corruption and the economy. Kenyans have been hurt by soaring food and fuel prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and that comes after the financial pain of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than a third of the country’s youth are unemployed.

When will Kenya have a winner?

Official results will be announced within a week of voting. To win outright, a candidate needs more than half of all votes and at least 25% of the votes in more than half of Kenya’s 47 districts. No overall winner means a runoff within 30 days.

The last presidential election in 2017 made history when a top court overturned the results and ordered a new election, a first in Africa. Should the courts again call for a new election, such an election would take place within 60 days of the verdict. Candidates or others have one week after the results are announced to submit a petition to the court, which has two weeks to decide.

“I want you to know that we are at a turning point as a country,” Odinga told the crowd listening to his campaign speech on Saturday. “Either something very good happens or something terrible happens.” He vowed to shake hands with his “rivals” whether he wins or loses.

Ruto said on Saturday he would “respect the decision of the Kenyan people” and not accept violence or engage in anything that undermines the constitution.

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