Kenya walks election tightrope

An early-morning helicopter crash into a misty forest that kills a presidential hopeful and his deputy; an impending International Criminal Court trial for murder, persecution and crimes against humanity that could imprison the deputy prime minister and three others; a nation on tenterhooks, waiting for an election that could deteriorate into widespread violence, bloodshed and fear.

You would be forgiven for thinking the past fortnight in Kenyan politics was the beginning of a John le Carre novel, but after recent events in terms of Kenya’s presidency there is everything to play for.

Kenya is a country of political pundits. Taxi drivers pore over the political pages of daily newspapers while waiting for their next ­customers. Hairdressers speculate about the impact of International Criminal Court trial dates while deftly braiding. Grocery sellers discuss the Constitution. There is a deep-seated engagement with the future of their country, shrouded in soap opera-like drama of political gossip.

But the only thing they can be certain about at the moment is uncertainty.

It is supposed to be an election year in Kenya, but no one knows when the elections will be called. The country’s fledgling 2010 Constitution, drawn up after the post-2007 election violence that left about 1500 dead and 300 000 displaced, specifies that elections should be held every five years in the second week of August.

Process of transition
The Constitutional Court has ruled that, this time round, the Independent Electoral Commission can choose the date because the country is still in a process of transition.

The commission has chosen March 4 2013 as decision day, saying it needs the time to prepare for the complex logistics of the first parliamentary and presidential elections since Kenya’s new Constitution came into force. Most Kenyans want a December poll but, short of the success of a Constitutional Court appeal or a parliamentary amendment, it looks as though they will be voting early next year.

This in itself raises more ambiguity. The government rests on a power-sharing agreement that was due to come to an end at the end of 2012, assuming that an election had taken place. Some analysts said they were nervous about a squabble erupting over an extension to the election date.

The date is also crucial because two of the four frontrunners for Kenya’s presidency are to stand trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The man at the front of the pack is also allegedly Kenya’s richest – Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta. He has formed an alliance with former minister William Ruto and both are charged with murder, persecution and crimes against humanity in the aftermath of the last election in 2007.

Their trial dates have been provisionally scheduled for mid-March next year, after the country’s elections, but they will be certain about the date only in mid-July.

Fair and square
Prime Minister Raila Odinga is supportive of the suggested post-election timing, saying he wants to win the election fair and square. Timing could decide the election. Campaigning would be near impossible from The Hague; that is, if Kenyatta and Ruto are allowed to stand for office.

Chapter six of Kenya’s new Constitution speaks of leadership integrity and bars anyone who has a questionable background from standing for public office, let alone the highest office in the land. Kenya is waiting with bated breath for a supreme court ruling that will decide whether the two men accused of orchestrating the 2007 violence should be allowed to contest the presidency. But court cases take time and Kenyatta and Ruto appear to be formulating a plan in the meantime.

Analysts say there is likely to be protest in the streets of Nairobi if Kenyatta and Ruto are not allowed to run. “A lot will ride on whether they throw their weight behind someone,” said political commentator Murithi Mutiga. At this stage, that someone looks likely to be Musalia Mudavadi, Kenya’s other deputy prime minister.

Alongside the uncertainty permeating the permutations of electoral choice, Mutiga said, the criminal court issue had raised tribal stakes in a country characterised historically by divided ethnic communities.

The upcoming election will inevitably pit the Kikuyu – Kenya’s largest tribe from which Kenyatta and President Mwai Kibaki are descended — against Odinga’s Luo tribe. And with the overhanging threat of criminal prosecution, Kenyatta and Ruto were encouraging their ethnic communities to protect their own, Mutiga said.

A political vacuum
There has been speculation that this month’s helicopter crash, which killed Internal Security Minister George Saitoti, who was the former education minister, an economist, Al-Shabaab’s nemesis and a presidential candidate, may have created a political vacuum – an opportunity to steal a few more votes. But despite his respected standing, his Kikuyu heritage meant he played second fiddle to Kenyatta in terms of tribal loyalty and so his tragic death, rather than structurally changing the game, became another opportunity for political campaigning.

As hundreds of residents resplendent in their kanga Sunday best forged paths through the undergrowth of the Ngong forest, they were joined by every politician who thought they should pay their respects to the minister in front of the television cameras.

Vice-president Stephen Musyoka came. Then Odinga. Then a bevy of MPs dodging curious onlookers and a voracious local press.

Odinga’s success as prime minister has stemmed largely from his ability to hold together a coalition of tribal leaders, who survive by bringing their ethnic groups to the polls in exchange for expected but unspoken tribal nepotism dating back to colonial “divide and rule” strategies. But without the power and spoils of the presidency, he has been unable to deliver on promises and his fragile coalition is falling apart, torn along the seams of tribal rivalry for state resources.

Despite this, Mutiga said, Odinga was determinedly styling himself as a post-ethnic leader attempting to unite the country with the rhetoric of a larger national identity.

But are Kenyans ready to vote for such a president, or is Odinga naively idealistic? “We yearn for it,” said Mutiga, “and we now have the right institutional framework in our Constitution, but it remains to be seen.” Kenya had failed to build broad-based political parties even after independence, he said, and Odinga, ever the shrewd politician, was trying to court tribal leaders behind the scenes.

No one can say for certain whether there will be more election violence this time round, but most Kenyans are openly embarrassed about the 2007 election and its aftermath. That  spate of violence may yet be the best deterrent.

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Nastasya Tay
Nastasya Tay works from Doha, Qatar. Anchor / correspondent @AJEnglish, former @iwmf fellow. Roamed the world for @SBSNews; Africa for @npr, @AP, @independent. Still roaming. [email protected] Nastasya Tay has over 5608 followers on Twitter.

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