Kenya will hold its national general election on 8 August 2017 amid fears of vote irregularities and violence in a poll pitting the country’s two major coalitions against each other: the ruling Jubilee Alliance coalition and the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) led by the perennial opposition leader, and former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga.
Jubilee, headed by incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, comprises Kenyatta’s party, The National Alliance (TNA); the National Rainbow Coalition (NRC); the United Republican Party (URP), led by Deputy President William Ruto; and the Republican Congress. NASA meanwhile, includes Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM); the Wiper Democratic Movement (Wiper); Forum for the Restoration of Democracy – Kenya ( FORD-Kenya); the Amani National Congress (ANC), and several smaller parties.
The 8 August ballot will include both the national parliamentary election and the presidential election with the latter garnering the most attention and expected to be a close affair. Latest opinion polls estimate Odinga will receive 47% of the vote and Kenyatta 46% ‒ this puts the race within the margin of error and too close to call, while raising the chances of a run-off election should neither man get a majority of the vote.
This tight nature of the contest has fuelled concerns of a disputed result which could lead to an outbreak of violence as seen in 2007 when 1 300 were killed and over 600 000 displaced in post-election violence. This threat is compounded by the stratified nature of Kenya’s politics which tend to split along regional and ethnic lines. The country’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, tends to support Kenyatta; while other major groups such as the Lua and the Mijikenda are likely to support Odinga. This ethnic stratification has heightened ethnic tensions across Kenya ahead of the ballot.
Exacerbating concerns, Kenya’s democratic institutions currently appear weak and unlikely to resolve election disputes in a way that will be respected by all parties. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) – Kenya’s electoral authority – has been accused by opposition leaders of being partisan and committing severe electoral irregularities. The IEBC has been criticised by Kenya’s courts and international observers for lacking transparency and preventing opposition access to the voters roll which is alleged to have been poorly audited. The IEBC’s backing of Jubilee on almost all major issues in recent years gives some credence to these concerns.
In addition, the judiciary’s ability to officiate a disputed election has also been questioned especially after the Supreme Court’s poor handling of the opposition’s petition to contest the results in 2013, which Kenyatta won comfortably but barely cleared the 50% mark to avoid a run-off.
In the event of a contested election or a run-off, some violence is expected with many of the view that it is inevitable. There are widespread reports of people leaving cities for more ethnically homogenous rural villages and domestic flights are virtually sold out for the days ahead of the election. Violence is more likely in the ethnically diverse cities and regions such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, and Kibera.
If violence erupts, there is a strong likelihood of a rapid spread to other areas in a series of retaliatory attacks between ethnic groups as in 2007. There is also a possibility of leaders of the various political parties fomenting xenophobic sentiment to whip up support with the International Criminal Court (ICC) ascribing the severity of the 2007 violence to leaders exploiting the situation for political gain.
Widespread election violence in Kenya could also have ramifications for the region as a whole, especially Somalia. There is a strong anti-government sentiment in Kenya’s coastal regions and a strong possibility of related violence, which could encourage Somalia based militant group Al-Shabaab to increase attacks in Kenya and southern Somalia.