Kenya decides again. Maybe

Will Kenya vote on October 26?

As of now, yes. But what it will look like is anyone’s guess. The 2017 presidential election has seen many twists and turns, and the run-up to election day has been marked by near-daily bombshells that have only led to more confusion.

On Wednesday, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chief Wafula Chebukati said that — from a technical and logistical point of view — preparations to hold the poll are on track. But, in a statement lambasting leaders and his staff for interference in the election, he raised doubts that the political environment was conducive for voters to exercise their rights.

Nic Cheeseman, a professor of African politics at the University of Birmingham, said Kenya was facing a “really dangerous situation” with few solutions.

Although Raila Odinga announced he would not take part, his name is still officially on the ballot paper, along with Kenyatta and seven others.

He has vowed there will be “no election” and called for mass protests, but it is unclear to what extent he plans to disrupt the vote.

But on Thursday, Odinga muddied the waters further, announcing that it was still possible for him to “reconsider” his decision to pull out if there was evidence of “proper” headway on electoral reform.

Chebukati has called for talks between Kenyatta and Odinga to quell tensions, but Cheeseman said it was “very hard” to see what a political deal would look like at this stage or how it could benefit either candidate.

What does Odinga want?

He is demanding a free and fair election with the aim of finally becoming president — two things he says go hand in hand.

The 72-year-old flag-bearer for the National Super Alliance (Nasa) coalition believes the August 8 election was rigged, causing him to lose what was widely seen as his last shot at the presidency after three previous failed efforts.

To the shock of many, he won a Supreme Court petition on September 1 to have President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory overturned. But, after accusing the IEBC of failing to make the vital reforms he demanded, in a surprise move he then pulled out of the race — a move he argued would legally force the commission to begin the whole election again from scratch, leaving more time for reforms.

This gamble appears to have failed.

“He just didn’t have a good set of options in the first place,” said Cheeseman. “He and Kenya were sleepwalking into another election that was going to be poor quality [and] that he was probably going to lose.”

Cheeseman said that, in a way, Odinga’s choosing the “nuclear option” was better than failing at yet another election and further cementing his reputation in some quarters as the “perennial political loser” of Kenyan politics.

What does Kenyatta want?

He has insisted that the election takes place, with or without Odinga.

The 55-year-old son of Kenya’s first president was infuriated by the invalidation of his 54% victory, slamming the Supreme Court judges as “crooks” and vowing to “fix” the court if re-elected.

But he quickly switched into campaign mode. With a seemingly inexhaustible treasure chest, he and his deputy William Ruto, clad in red, the party colour, have done another whirlwind tour of the country to whip up support.

In contrast Nasa — which launched a fundraising call to supporters — has held near-daily press briefings to complain about the lack of reforms.

Kenyatta accuses the party of having had no intention of participating in the election, and of angling for a power-sharing government.

Will the election be credible?

This is the $100-million question — the steep sum budgeted for the poll.

With Odinga boycotting the rerun, and Kenyatta alone on the ballot with five smaller candidates, he is assured victory.

Chebukati said that political interference in the poll from party leaders and biased staff meant he could not guarantee a free, fair and credible election. He warned an election without Odinga could lead to years of legitimacy problems for the elected government.

Cheeseman said the biggest risk was not a poorly organised election, but a scenario in which government tries to force an election in Nasa heartlands by sending in more security forces to polling stations. “That is a recipe for disaster,” he said.

In recent days protesters have attacked polling officials in Odinga’s strongholds while they run training sessions ahead of the election.

Another question is whether an election in which voting does not take place in all constituencies can be seen as legitimate.

A result from such an election could again open the door for contestation in the Supreme Court.

How have Kenyans reacted?

Uncertainty has gripped the country, business has slowed and everyone is locked into a wait-and-see mode.

The political crisis is the worst since a disputed 2007-2008
election sparked politically motivated ethnic violence that left 1 100 people dead.

The 2017 crisis is different in many ways, but opposition protests have resulted in 40 deaths, mostly at the hands of police and in poor opposition strongholds.

Many Kenyans just want to put the election behind them, and are tired of a political class seen as corrupt and chasing their own interests. AFP

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Fran Blandy
Fran Blandy
AFP's deputy bureau chief for East Africa, based in Nairobi, Previously correspondent in Paris, Dakar and Johannesburg.
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