After a four-decade political saga that has spanned eight years in prison and four failed presidential attempts, 77-year-old Raila Odinga finally seems ready to achieve the goal of his life: Kenya’s highest elected office.
Mr Odinga goes into Tuesday’s election as the favorite to win the Kenyan presidency, retaining a slim but clear lead in the latest polls. His main opponent, Vice President William Ruto, remains within reach and could still force an unprecedented runoff between the two frontrunners if neither gets 50 percent of the vote.
At his last campaign rally over the weekend, Mr. Odinga sang the words of Bob Marley redemption song, conjured up the image of a biblical “land of milk and honey” and promised a policy of reconciliation with its rivals. He has pledged to fight poverty by providing a monthly stipend of about $50 to two million families in need.
More than 50 million people in the East African region will face acute food insecurity this year, the regional bloc says
Western governments, including Canada, have issued a statement saying the election is “hugely important” because Kenya is “an anchor of stability, security and democracy” for Africa and the world. Despite sporadic electoral violence and allegations of fraud in the past, Kenya’s democracy is considered one of the strongest in the region.
Mr Odinga, the son of Kenya’s first vice president, was praised for his courage in fighting for multiparty democracy during the era of authoritarian ruler Daniel arap Moi. Arrested and tortured in 1982, he spent most of the 1980s in prison.
Although he is known as an opposition leader, Mr Odinga has been a key member of Kenya’s wealthy power elite over the past two decades, including years as cabinet minister and prime minister. His most recent candidacy received a major boost when he was endorsed by President Uhuru Kenyatta in a famous handshake in 2018.
While many Kenyans are concerned about the risk of post-election violence in the hard-fought vote, similar to the clashes that killed about 1,500 people after the 2007 election, Mr Odinga has tried to defuse fears by he remembered his handshakes with opponents in the past.
“I will continue this handshake doctrine, the open fist doctrine for the sake of Kenya,” he said at his last campaign rally.
He has chosen Martha Karua, a former justice minister, as his running mate. If they win, she will become the first female Deputy President in Kenyan history.
A poll conducted by research firm Ipsos last week found Mr Odinga preferred by 47 percent of respondents, compared to 41 percent who preferred Mr Ruto. The pollsters called it a “comfortable” lead. The survey was based on face-to-face interviews with 6,105 Kenyan adults and had an error rate of 1.25 percentage points.
The other two presidential candidates, George Wajackoyah and David Mwaure, were each supported by less than 3 percent of respondents, while about 9 percent were undecided or would not reveal their preference.
While the election campaign was relatively peaceful, Mr Ruto has exchanged verbal smacks with his former ally, Mr Kenyatta, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. The bitter sparring could be an ominous sign for the time after the election. “Should the winner narrowly win the presidency, the declared loser can reject the outcome,” the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, said in an analysis last week.
“Ideally, the aggrieved loser would turn to the courts, but if they instead call supporters onto the streets, they could clash with the police,” it said. “There can also be community violence.”
Post-election violence is considered less likely after this election as the main candidates have formed coalitions across ethnic lines. But there is still suspicion of Kenya’s electoral commission, reinforced by a recent mysterious incident in which police arrested three Venezuelans who had flown to Kenya with voting materials in their personal luggage.
In an election where the president strongly supports Mr Odinga’s candidacy, Kenyans doubt whether the electoral commission will be neutral. “People feel that the executive branch is interfering in the affairs of conducting the elections,” David Minja, a professor of public policy at Kenyatta University, told an online panel recently.
Mr Ruto, 55, has positioned himself as a candidate for the young and economically marginalized, stressing his background as a ‘hustler’ who grew up peddling live roadside chickens. He refers to his supporters as the “Hustler Nation” – the poor and unemployed who work odd jobs to survive. However, analysts have noted from unclear sources that he has become a wealthy landowner in recent years.
In 2010, Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto were among six Kenyans charged with crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court for their alleged role in inciting violence following the 2007 elections. The two men joined forces in the 2013 election and became president and vice president, and charges were eventually dropped after the government refused to provide key documents to the international court and allegedly bribed or intimidated several prosecution witnesses had been.
Mr Ruto and Mr Kenyatta fell out in 2018 when the President threw his support to Mr Odinga. However, analysts have found few substantive policy differences between the top performers. “The two main presidential candidates appear to have many similarities when it comes to plans for managing the economy,” London-based Capital Economics said in an election analysis.
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