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BLOG: “What’s Next for Kenya After the Elections?”

last modified Nov 23, 2017 04:10 PM
by Genevieve Riccoboni, MPhil student in World History, CGHR student group

Update with recent election developments: On Monday 20th November the Supreme Court rejected two petitions presented to them which sought to have the election re-run annulled. As such, Uhuru Kenyatta has been confirmed as President for a second and final term.

The 2017 Kenyan elections have been a complicated and long journey. What seemed like a normal election took an interesting turn on the 1st of September. In an unprecedented move by the Supreme Court, the 8th August presidential election result, which had declared the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta as winner, was annulled as a result of fundamental shortcomings in procedure by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. However, before the election could be re-run, the main opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, boycotted the vote, citing a lack of electoral reform. As a result the 26th October vote led to a high-margin victory for Kenyatta and his Jubilee Coalition, but, with a turnout of only 34% and little electoral reform many are questioning the plebiscite’s legitimacy.

Kenyan Election 1
CGHR Co-Director Dr Ella McPherson and the panel

How could all of this happen, and how can we best understand the different forces at play in Kenya’s current election cycle? That was the question posed to a recent panel hosted by the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at the University of Cambridge, entitled “What’s Next for Kenya After the Elections? The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. The panel featured Patrick Mutahi, Dr Njoki Wamai, and Kamau Wairuri, who educated the audience on the themes of election security, political discourses, and the shaping and reshaping of elite alliances in Kenya. 

Patrick Mutahi analysed the role of election security and police accountability in the 2017 election, both popular themes in media coverage. Mutahi claimed that in some ways, 2017 was a positive break from the past. The police were more prepared to provide election security than in prior years; they were coordinated, professional, and organized prior to the first round of voting. However, Mutahi argues that after the election, this trend ceased, and the interests of the police became fused with those of the state. The police viewed themselves then as responsible for protecting the executive branch, not for protecting people’s voting rights (especially not the rights of opposition supporters). This “vacuum of accountability” is an old and familiar dynamic, in which extrajudicial killings and police brutality have been “normalised” within the electoral process. Mutahi concluded that because of this context, changing the electoral system to “lower the stakes” structurally may be a good idea. Mixed or proportional representation systems certainly are less tumultuous than the first-past-the-post system used in Kenya’s presidential election. How feasible electoral reform would be, however, is another matter. In the meantime, we should keep watchful of police behaviour during the ongoing protests, where there is potential for unrest to turn to violence. Police behaviour since the election re-run has confirmed this concern. 

Shifting focus from security to the world of political imagination, Dr Njoki Wamai analysed the political discourses and narratives of the 2017 elections. She argued that NASA, the opposition coalition led by Raila Odinga, projected itself as a populist, anti-corruption, urban party with a goal to challenge the perceived notion of Kikuyu hegemony. The populism of NASA manifested itself in a variety of ways, including by challenging the developmentalist language of Jubilee (calling them “tenderpreneurs”) and evoking religious symbolism. Odinga made use of Biblical tropes in different speeches throughout the campaign, calling himself “Joshua” and claiming that the journey to Canaan, the Promised Land in the Old Testament, was “unstoppable”. In this discourse, “Canaan” was a Kenya where NASA formed the government, in contrast to the Jubilee-led “Land of Egypt” (a site of oppression). 

Wamai pointed out that although NASA’s populism was unique in its language, Jubilee also made use of populist tactics and messages during the election. Kenyatta spoke heavily of electricity and development, and continued to use social media to engender popularity among the public. Because of this, the 2017 elections can perhaps be characterized as “populist” overall, a designation that opens up space to insert the Kenyan elections into broader discussions about populism in our world today. 

In the last presentation, Kamau Wairuri looked at elite alliances. Positioning his argument in parallel to narratives that centre ethnicity, fraud, and violence, Wairuri argued that elite alliances play a crucial role in shaping and reshaping Kenyan political parties. Political parties form a kind of “merry go round” in Kenyan politics. Nearly all of the major politicians in Kenya have switched parties multiple times, often forming governments with former adversaries, and challenging former running mates. Wairuri analysed a chart of the major parties in elections since 2002, provoking several questions from the audience about the reasons for party shifts. Because of this dynamic scene, many analysts predicted that the alliances of the 2013 election year would fall apart in 2017. However, that did not happen. Wairuri argued that this was due to different logistical and financial constraints on elites, which tied their hands and made alternative alliances impossible. In this argument, the role of ethnicity is important but nuanced. According to Wairuri, many Kenyan voters want candidates who they can realistically assume will represent their interests and mediate their interactions with the state. This often means voting for candidates who can win, and who have pledged a level of support to the relevant ethnic or ethnolinguistic group. Consequently the demands of ethnic communities are often tied to particular individuals. By understanding this in context of coalition formation, we can better analyse the behaviour of specific elites in the 2017 election.

Kenyan Election 4
Njoki Wamai, Patrick Mutahi (left) and Kamau Wairuri

So what happens next? The Q&A brought out several rounds of questions, with a few people inquiring specifically on the future of the judiciary and presidency. The panel largely agreed that the Supreme Court’s initial decision should be seen as a positive sign for the judiciary’s growing independence. Dr Wamai noted that there are still several cases open with the Supreme Court regarding the election results, and that these may be open for quite some time. In the meantime, many opposition supporters have expressed their discontent through boycotts and protests. However, presidential power remains strong over the budget and in cultural symbolism, meaning that there is limited room to contest the executive. In that regard, there was some pessimism about the ability of the public to effect change. Although this election was certainly better than some in the past, Wairuri noted that it still was widely seen as “not good enough”. A lack of police accountability, growing levels of populism, and elite behaviour all have varied and important effects on elections and democracy. It is the work of the next generation of Kenyans to continue demanding change, until every election is a good, as opposed to a “good enough” expression of the democratic will.