Politics as unusual

Strategy shifts for Kenya’s election


With the possible exception of English football, there is no topic that obsesses Kenyans more than politics. In August the discussion will culminate in a general election—for the presidency, parliament and a host of local positions. The main hope for many outsiders will be that the vote is relatively fair and passes without the violence that led to the deaths of around 1,200 people following the election in 2007. But Kenyans, the true obsessives, are already talking about what the results will mean for the following election in 2022.

Fighting for re-election is Uhuru Ken­yatta, the president who was first elected in 2013, together with his deputy president, William Ruto, in an unlikely alliance across Kenya’s tribal divisions. They will probably face Raila Odinga, a veteran opposition politician who ran for president in 1997, 2007 and 2013, and whose alliance, the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy, is the biggest non-government party.

Few expect Messrs Ken­yatta and Ruto to lose. Unlike last time, when they won comfortably, they now have the benefits of incumbency too—and the money that brings. But their strategy is new. In 2013 they exploited tribal divisions, argues Nic Cheeseman of Oxford University. At the time, both leaders faced charges from the International Criminal Court (ICC) of inciting violence in the run-up to the 2007 vote. These they used to electoral advantage: playing on fears that the outside world was targeting the Kikuyu (Mr Kenyatta’s tribe) and the Kalenjin (Mr Ruto’s) for revenge.

That strategy won’t work as well this time, though tribal loyalties remain strong. After witnesses disappeared or recanted their testimony, the charges against Mr Kenyatta were dropped in 2014; those against Mr Ruto fell apart in 2016. Instead, the pair are appealing to national loyalty. Their party, Jubilee, launched in September, has a Swahili slogan meaning “All Together”. The aim is to widen support beyond the pair’s communities. One side- effect will be to paint Mr Odinga—whose strongest support comes from his own tribe, the Luo—as a sectional candidate.

Yet many Kenyans suspect that the bigger aim is to give Mr Ruto, long seen as a brutal tribalist, a veneer of broader appeal. He is widely thought to want to take over in 2022, when Mr Kenyatta has to stand down, and to do so he will need to cultivate allies beyond his own backyard. That is a fear shared even by some in Mr Kenyatta’s camp. Though both ended up in front of the ICC after 2007, Mr Ruto was on the opposite side to Mr Kenyatta in that election, and the two do not necessarily trust each other.

The election will probably be followed immediately by a behind-the-scenes succession struggle. But the vote itself will be quiet and predictable. Investors in Kenya will be relieved: fears of a repeat of 2007’s bloodletting are hurting the economy (though so too is the huge spending splurge the government is embarking on). Indeed, after a year in which elections in Zambia and Gabon were marred with violence, Kenya’s vote might even seem hopeful. But, sadly, violence avoided may prove only to be violence delayed.

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