Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-KENYA: Voters Reaffirm Democracy; Now It's the Politicians' Turn

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Analysis by Najum Mushtaq

NAIROBI, Dec 27 2007 (IPS) - Kenya's presidential, parliamentary and local council polls on Thursday were far from perfect. The main opposition candidate for the presidency and favourite to win the election could not locate his name in the voters' register in a constituency he has represented for the past 15 years.

In many places, Kenyans who were eager to cast their ballots found polling booths closed and election staff unprepared, even two hours after the starting time. Campaigners of a parliamentary candidate were caught bribing voters as they lined up outside a polling station, while certain aspirants had given "listening allowances" of about a dollar or more to people attending their rallies.

Yet, despite flaws in the system, moving from one polling station in Nairobi to another was to see democracy in action.

From the cosmopolitan environs of Kilimani to the more plebeian Thika Road, from the posh Westlands to the shantytowns of Kibera, voters in Kenya's capital turned up early and came out in droves; even the damp weather and brief spurts of rain failed to dampen spirits. Polling stations across the East African country presented similar scenes.

The dreaded prospect of large-scale violence did not materialise. Incidents took place in the already troubled western region of Eldoret and in Nyanza province, in the south-west, where certain reports indicated that two people had been killed. Elsewhere, it was reported that three police officers had been killed in the west, while a man was also said to have been killed in Kibera, although it is unclear whether the latter was election-related. By and large, however, the polls were free of trouble.

In places where the start of voting was delayed, crowds waited patiently, with no thought of abandoning the queues. "We are here to cast votes, and even if we have to stay here another day we won't leave unless the ballot is in the box," commented a voter interviewed by IPS outside the Hospital Hill Primary School in Nairobi, where balloting started two hours late.


At one of the polling stations that experienced delays, a returning officer said the ballot papers meant for his booth had been sent elsewhere by mistake. At another site, the staff arrived late. Certain election staffers were resentful about being paid some 70 dollars for about a week's work. A roving clerk, who was instructing voters how to mark the complicated ballot paper, told IPS he was doing his duty in the "national cause": "What we are being paid is inadequate. The election process cannot become better organised and more efficient unless the staff is satisfied with its remuneration."

The missing AROW

The Old Kibera Primary School in Nairobi remained the focus of attention through much of the day. Situated in the Langata constitutency of Raila Odinga, the main challenger to President Mwai Kibaki, its polling staff could not spot Odinga's name in the voters' register, and he had to leave the school without casting his ballot.

Odinga drove straight to the Electoral Commission of Kenya's offices in downtown Nairobi to register a formal protest. The matter was sorted out when he was told that he is indeed a registered voter, and that the confusion had resulted from a new procedure adopted by the commission of ordering voters to queue according to their names, in alphabetical order.

This procedure meant that the voters' registers were split accordingly at different booths within a polling site. In Odinga's case, many registers of voters whose surnames started with A, R, O and W were misplaced. During an impromptu press conference, a top commission officer explained that this was the result of human error, not a ploy to disenfranchise the opposition leader. Odinga, to his credit, refrained from launching a rigging tirade against the government and went back to Old Kibera to try again.

Youth come of age

During the run-up to the elections the contest had virtually become a youth versus age phenomenon. More than 40 per cent of Kenya's 14.3 million voters are below 40. Surveying the long lines of voters in Nairobi one could see the predominance of young people. In the Dagoretti constituency, one of the most keenly contested seats in the capital, a 29-year old artist – John Kiarie – took on 68-year-old Beth Mugo, a symbol of the country's traditional elite and niece of Kenya's founding father, Jomo Kenyatta. Kiarie's chances of wining are slim. But his campaign was lively and galvanised many other young people not only to stand in elections, but also make themselves count at the polling stations.

The exuberance of youth and the high degree of their participation in this election has also shaken another longstanding pattern of Kenyan politics: tribalism. Few expect a dramatic turnaround, as the country's political class remains habitually attached to closed-door deals along tribal lines. But this election brought to the fore a new generation of candidates and voters who are willing to see life in Kenya beyond tribal allegiances.

Josphalt Macharia, a tour operator from Naivasha in the Rift Valley province, believes that "as more young people move to cities like Nairobi for education and employment, tribal ties will loosen in time. It will also change their political orientation. A few elections down the line, the dynamics of Kenyan politics will surely move away from its tribal base. But it will take time."

Two-horse race

Although nine hopefuls had entered the presidential contest, including a Muslim woman, the only serious challenger to Kibaki's bid for a second term is his erstwhile comrade, Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). In pre-election opinion polls, Odinga led Kibaki by a thin margin.

The ODM leader is usually described as an "outsider" in a polity still dominated by the remnants of the country's founding party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU). Turning 63 in January, he is also relatively young. His father was an independence hero and comrade of Kenyatta.

After studying engineering during the 1980s in what was then East Germany, Odinga became a prominent dissident against former head of state Daniel arap Moi's one-party rule. He was arrested on treason charges after a failed military coup in 1982 and spent most of the next ten years in jail as a political prisoner.

In 1991, Odinga helped found the Forum for Restoration of Democracy. This grouping was instrumental in, first, abolishing the one-party system and eventually ousting KANU from power under the banner of the National Rainbow Coalition, which was led by Kibaki. Odinga played a crucial role in helping Kibaki win the presidency in 2002, through ensuring support from his Luo tribe in Nyanza.

Odinga served as a cabinet minister till 2005, but left the Kibaki government after it tried to force through an unpopular constitution. He then led his newly formed ODM to a historic victory in a referendum on the new constitution. Kibaki's defeat in the 2005 referendum marked the first instance in Kenya's history in which an incumbent president suffered some form of electoral defeat.

Odinga has portrayed himself as a people's president and based his campaign on promises of change. A pan-Africanist whose primary instinct is to rebel against the established order, he has promised to rebuild the country's infrastructure, especially the road and rail networks, and to end corruption. Other than winning friends in anti-Kikuyu tribes of western and eastern Kenya, Odinga also forged an electoral alliance with the Muslim dominated North-eastern province. His feisty image has helped him cultivate a huge following among the younger generation, which is less prone to see politics through the prism of tribal allegiance.

His nomination as ODM's presidential candidate led to a split in the party that saw Kalonzo Musyoka, an even younger politician at 54, form his own faction, ODM-Kenya. Musyoka also joined the race for State House, the sprawling presidential residence in Nairobi. A born-again Christian, the ODM-Kenya leader was hoping for an election-day miracle, as his campaign failed to gather momentum during the electioneering.

For Kibaki, heading the Party of National Unity, the election result will be a litmus test of his statesmanship. He has run on the basis of his five-year record of consistent economic growth, which at a yearly five percent remains a commendable achievement. He also takes credit for doing away with Moi's repressive style of politics, and providing the media with unprecedented freedoms. Yet, corruption and inefficiency of the state machinery remain the proverbial albatross around his neck.

From election to transition

More than mere personalities and political parties, at stake in Kenya's elections is the future of the electoral process in this country. To a large extent, the matter of who wins or loses has become a secondary issue: what is more significant is whether Kenya can repeat the peaceful transition of power witnessed after the 2002 elections, which was a first in the nation's troubled history, and a minor miracle by Africa's often abysmal democratic standards.

If Kibaki loses, can he ensure a peaceful transfer of power of the kind that he benefited from in 2002? If he wins, can he display enough grace to reach out to the other side and prevent the electoral divide from spiralling into permanent political hostilities? And if the results warrant a run-off, could he avoid the temptation of employing arcane constitutional tricks of the past to keep his main adversary out of office?

From dawn to dusk on Thursday the multitudes of voters who turned out in Kenya's elections passed the democratic test. Can Kibaki and the rest of the political class rise to the same level of maturity that the electorate have shown? We will know the answer in a few days. But the signs so far are auspicious.

 
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