Perspectives on the forthcoming elections in Kenya

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It pays to have an ear to the ground in Kenyan politics, especially when the election season comes around. The memory of the 2007 and 2008 election-related violence is still raw for the many lives lost and those of the internally displaced that are yet to pick up.

The 2007 polls remain a watershed moment, with the attendant violence becoming something of a baseline away from which elections have since been guarded against locally, but also regionally.

Thus, as the August polls draw close, a subtle message of caution has already been conveyed by the likes of the US Embassy, reminding Kenya that, in a turbulent region, the country’s stability, economic muscle, and diplomatic leadership remain essential.

All it would take, it is stressed, is for the electoral process to take a wrong turn and the country’s pivotal role in the region could be threatened. Kenya’s leadership to calm the simmering threat of war between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo illustrates this role.

The US’s caution, however, though well-meaning, is no doubt driven by its geopolitical interests. But it presents a bleaker outlook than the electoral situation in the country currently obtains.

I am persuaded to take this view after reading keen and more trusted watchers of local affairs such as Ugandan columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo, who writes for the Daily Nation. He suggests that, while it might still be troubled, Kenyan democracy largely works, and its politics is getting predictable.

He offers an evocative example arguing that the Kenyan-Asian business community has always been a good source for gauging risk.

They are, he writes, very sensitive to the likelihood of turmoil and has a good nose for sniffing danger.

Onyango-Obbo goes on to explain that one of the biggest surprises is that, this time, a member of the community whom he has turned to for many years gave him the most optimistic take he (the friend) has ever doled out in an election period.

“There might be something small, which is inevitable, but don’t expect any election violence this time,” the friend told him.

I am also inclined to agree that devolution of power to the counties, a legacy of the 2010 Constitution after the 2007/2008 PEV, has somewhat dulled the everything-to-die-for presidential scramble for control of the central government that always presaged the spectre of violence.

If this optimistic view is valid, then the hard part should be to decide who will best represent the electorate at each level of governance and especially at the central government where national policy is decided on the major issues.

And the issues at stake this time around already constitute an immense task. They include an economy battered by inflation and high taxation, the rising cost of living and rampant corruption, huge national debt and high unemployment among the youth, the Covid-19 pandemic, drought and security concerns from the bandits in the northern parts of the country.

On these issues, the battle lines are already drawn. And, going by the opinion polls, it might seem the electorate is almost evenly split and is at the moment already decided who they will vote for between the two main contenders for the presidential ticket.

Pundits suggest this might have something to do with the reconfiguration of the political coalitions jostling for the ticket, and not least the choice of the vice-presidential candidates.

Notably also, outside the campaign trail and coverage on mainstream media, the messaging has, to a large extent, been conducted on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok.

This is not new, as social media was a factor in the previous two elections. This is except that social media denizens have grown to a significant number. And, if it would not be a stretch, an argument can be made that they present another constituency from which to tap potential swing voters.

As at the beginning of 2022, the number of social media users in the country was estimated to be about 21.1 percent of the total population. This number suggests that the majority of the electorate not on the platforms is mainly being influenced by politicians on the campaign trails and mainstream media.

But two things may be observed about the social media platforms. First, they are often characterised by noisy and unedifying chatter best personified by the infamous Kenyans on Twitter (KOT). Put into this mix the partisan messaging by the opposing political parties that tend to inflame the vitriol, pitting one side of supporters against the other.

While the platforms are also infested with disinformation and fake news, they nonetheless offer the democratising features of the public square.

This brings in the second observation: that, in the midst of it all especially on Twitter, critical civic education is taking place. One need only take the example of think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs (@IEAKenya) articulating public policy issues, or individuals with a wide and engaged following such as economist Dr. David Ndii (@DavidNdii). Ndii especially stands out for his willingness to engage even the most obnoxious of tweeps. His retorts often are laced with witty sarcasm, making him endearing even as he attracts the wrath of those with dissenting views.

All said, the forthcoming elections in Kenya may not promise to be perfect, but perhaps they have changed since 2007, hopefully for the better.

*Gitura Mwaura is a writer and development journalist

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