Ethnicity May No Longer Be A Key Deciding Factor in Kenyan Elections
By Prince Kurupati
Up until now, Kenyan elections of the past have largely been decided by the ethnicity factor. The need to vote for “our son” or “one of our own” has necessitated the elevation of many to top political positions while at the same time leading to the downfall of many despite merit and competence. The supremacy however of ethnicity in Kenyan elections seems to be a thing of the past now. Instead of identity, the voting population in the country now seems drawn more to politics of substance.
Many political analysts view the economy as the main deciding factor in the upcoming election. According to the BTI Report, more than two million Kenyans were pushed into abject poverty as the economy contracted by 1-1.5% in 2020. The unemployment rate on the other hand increased to 10.4% affecting all Kenyans regardless of ethnicity. The contraction of the economy however isn’t necessitated by poor or ineffective policies by the Kenyatta administration only. Rather, several unforeseen and unpredictable events including the Covid pandemic, the locust plague and the Russia-Ukraine war which affected the global supply chain played a huge part in this.
The country’s poor economic fortunes have necessitated voters to look for more than a popular candidate of similar identity when voting. Rather, many are now preconcerted with looking for the candidate offering the very best of economic policies that will likely help the country rise again. It’s against this background that William Ruto’s ‘hustler’ political message resonates with many urban voters. Dismayed by the current economic system which in most instances stifles ‘hustles’ by ordinary citizens, the urban vote views Ruto’s liberal economic policies as more appealing.
The elevation of Hakainde Hichilema to the presidency post in ‘neighbouring’ Zambia has also set a great precedent for the urban voters in Kenya. During his election campaign, Hichilema focused more on the economy promising to turn around the country’s economic fortunes while at the same time help reduce the country’s foreign debt. In his early days in office, Hichilema has managed to turn things around as the Kwacha has significantly gained value while the unemployment rate is falling by each day. The civil service is employing graduates in dozens and the remuneration for civil servants has been reviewed to the satisfaction of many workers. The way things are going in Zambia is giving hope to many Kenyans that backing a candidate with a great economic background can work wonders for them.
Interlinking the triple factors of politics, economy and the social sphere, William Ruto has also presented himself as a different mould from the ‘dynasty candidates’ that his opponents are part of. Ruto’s main challenger Raila Odinga and the outgoing president who is backing Odinga, Uhuru Kenyatta all hail from political dynasties that have ruled Kenya since she attained independence. Presenting himself as the alternative, William Ruto has had much success by ‘proving’ how the political dynasties that have ruled the country before have betrayed the interests of the masses.
The politics of coalitions which started back then in 2002 in Kenya but solidified in 2010 with the passing of the 50%+1 rule is now well and truly underway. Winning an election today is no longer a premise reserved for the ‘big men’ who can use their political and economic muscle to mobilise their communities to vote for them on election day. Rather, the important qualities that candidates need nowadays is to appeal to the voters, sell their message and align themselves with like-minded candidates. Those who can excel on this front enjoy more success.
The two leading running candidates have shown an openness to aligning with people from all ethnic groups. Raila Odinga who is from the Luo community has a Kikuyu running mate. Likewise, William Ruto from the Kalenjin community has a Kikuyu running mate. The composition of the campaign teams for both candidates is also diverse as it includes members from the Kikuyu. Luo, Kalenjin among other ethnic groups. Apart from helping candidates appeal more to different ethnic groups, coalitions have also been hailed by political analysts for being great unifiers and pacifiers.
Speaking to the BBC, Sam Kona who is a commissioner at the state’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) said that coalitions are changing the mindset of many Kenyans from viewing politics and elections in particular as zero-sum games. Sam Kona said Kenyans are learning from coalitions how elites come together after each election hence they too should emulate the same and shun violence. “Kenya has a sad history of unresolved grievances, stretching 50 years, that often trigger violence, and politicians have become adept at creating fear between communities… People are blind to the fact that this is just a contestation of power among the elite, and once it’s over, the elite get together whether they won or not,” Kona said.
Though agreeing with Sam Kona that coalitions are great unifiers, Murithi Mutiga who is the Africa programme director at the International Crisis Group is of the view that the sheer high number of coalitions created by the political elites since the early 2000s has proved to the ordinary folks that the elites are in it (politics) for their own gain rather than to spearhead the country’s development. As such, taking a cue from the political elites, the ordinary folks are now investing less and less in the country’s political system choosing only to air their views at national events such as the elections and return to their daily lives.
“Kenyans have grown tired of all the byzantine alliances they’ve been seeing among the elite… I think this has made Kenyans much more indifferent, much less inflamed, much more likely to see that the elite are basically just playing their own game,” Murithi Mutiga said.