Kenya elects president in tense elections marred by the economic crisis

Kenya elects president in tense elections marred by the economic crisis

Philip Kaloki, a candidate for Nairobi’s lieutenant governor, sought the vote of 100 residents of the Pumwani slum on August 4. After almost an hour of rallying, Kaloki pulled out a wad of bills, the shouts rang out and the motorcycle taxi drivers started burning wheels. The women hid before the people reached out for a little money. “You’ll tell me what 200 shillings (less than two euros) means, people don’t understand that their vote is worth more,” says neighbor Nancy Kere.

Kenya, one of the most stable countries in East Africa and the region’s economic powerhouse, is holding elections this Tuesday in which more than 22 million citizens can vote for all of the country’s political representatives at once: a total of more than 16,000 candidates for 1,882 seats in the National Assembly, the Senate and the regional chambers compete. Voters will also elect the 47 regional governors and Kenya’s fifth president.

At the end of July, the Interior Ministry’s chief of staff, Fred Matiang’i, warned that the banks were suffering from a shortage of 200 shillings due to the actions of the political class. The distribution of money by candidates at the end of rallies is a common trend in the African country’s election campaign, but has a more relevant weight this year due to economic tightness and the close race for the presidency.

Voters queue outside a polling station during Kenya's general election in Kawangware, Nairobi on Tuesday.Voters queue outside a polling station during Kenya’s general election in Kawangware, Nairobi, on Tuesday PATRICK MEINHARDT (AFP)

Four candidates are competing to succeed Uhuru Kenyatta, who is leaving power after two terms as required by the constitution. But only two have real options: Raila Odinga and William Ruto. At 77, First is the eternal foe, running for the presidency for the fifth time, while Ruto faces his first candidacy after being a vice president at Kenyatta. The former is a slight favorite by a margin of six to eight percentage points in recent polls. However, should the forecasts come true, neither would get more than 50% of the vote and the country could go into a second round for the first time, although both could win and avoid it if they convince 9% of the undecided.

The high cost of living is the main problem faced by Kenyans, and this is reflected in the campaign. Both have pledged money to the most vulnerable: Odinga will give $50 to every family below the poverty line, while Ruto has pledged he will spend $417 million on the lowest income families. However, none of them have given any details on how they will do it.

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Subsidies against inflation

Inflation has skyrocketed in recent months following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reaching 8.3% in July, driven by a 15.3% rise in the food basket. Add to this the worst drought in 70 years, which has left 4.1 million Kenyans food insecure. To counteract these problems, the government has offered subsidies for oil, corn and wheat, but the stifling national debt is pressing. Kenyatta has nearly tripled GDP but at the same time its debt has skyrocketed, which has quintupled to $72,000 million, 67.5% of GDP, ranking the country sixth in the world at higher risk of default. according to the Bloomberg ranking.

“We’ve developed as a country, but people on the street are wondering where the money is,” says XN Iraki, an economist at the University of Nairobi. Ordinary citizens do not feel the country’s macroeconomic development. “The Kenyan economy was thriving, but that prosperity was not shared. That is the great challenge of the next president,” affirmed Iraki. This inclusion must reach the youngest in particular. The latest census showed that more than a third of Kenyans under the age of 35 are unemployed and political dissatisfaction is palpable: although they make up almost three quarters of the population, young people make up less than 40% of the registered voters for these elections.

The 2022 presidential race will be marked by a handshake between Kenyatta and Odinga, rivals in the previous two presidential elections. The outgoing president now supports his rival instead of his previous vice-president: Ruto feels betrayed and uses this matter to outline the elections as a struggle of the elites against the popular classes.

Kenyatta and Odinga are the sons of two of the most important political figures in post-independence Kenya, former President Jomo Kenyatta and opposition figure Jamarogi Oginga Odinga, while Ruto comes from humble rural backgrounds and sells chickens on the street to truck drivers in the valley of the crack. With the logo of a wheelbarrow and a slogan (“Every fighter matters”), the Vice President tries to identify with the 83 percent of Kenyans who work in the informal sector and live their everyday lives.

The margin of victory will be important for the loser to accept the result in a tense political environment. Any irregularity can fuel rejection, and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) puts the likelihood of post-election violence at 53%.

A Kenyan checks election lists at a polling station in Nairobi on Monday.A Kenyan checks electoral lists at a polling station in Nairobi on Monday DANIEL IRUNGU (EFE)

The Kibera shanty town in Nairobi was one of the flashpoints in the wave of inter-ethnic violence that swept the country in 2007, leaving 1,200 dead and 350,000 displaced. Now its citizens can breathe easy for the time being. “There is peace of mind because there is certainty that Odinga will win. If he loses, the blow will be unexpected and violence may ensue because people believe the outcome has been rigged,” says Joe Gathecha, a resident of the site.

Much of the Luo population lives in Kibera, a municipality to which Odinga belongs. This year, however, identity appears to be less important in the elections. For the first time, there is no favorite candidate from the Kikuyu community, the largest and most powerful in the country, and the target of most attacks. Both Odinga and Ruto are trying to win their votes, which has eased ethnic tensions. We have to wait three days for the results. Meanwhile, Kenya eagerly awaits who will become its fifth president.

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