We’re headed for a close election due to similarity of campaign issues

William Ruto and Raila Odinga

Deputy President William Ruto (left) and Azimio la Umoja One Kenya presidential candidate Raila Odinga.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • William Ruto is talking about the economy and the need to address unemployment and the cost of living. 
  • Raila Odinga is also talking matters economy and the need to build industries to address unemployment.

The August 9 General Election is nine weeks away and will be a two-horse race. It also appears that the race will be too close to call, with a razor-thin margin of difference in results. Past experience would lead to the conclusion that there will be claims and counter-claims of victory and claims and counter-claims of manipulation of election results.

The makeup of the race is clear. There is former Prime Minister Raila Odinga of Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition and Deputy President William Ruto of Kenya Kwanza Alliance (KKA) .

There are several other candidates with little or no numeric consequence. Former Vice-President Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka of Wiper Democratic Movement appears indecisive and has flip-flopped so much that he has affirmed the ‘watermelon’ sobriquet. In recent weeks, he has acquired the sobriquet ‘chameleon’ for changing positions the way a chameleon does in different environments.

But the cumulative effect of the numbers these fringe candidates get could force a runoff. If no one between the two candidates can get 50 per cent plus one votes, then the election will conclude with a runoff. New claims and counter-claims of rigging will emerge and end up at the Supreme Court. No one can tell what would happen thereafter. It could be a prolonged election period.

Most recent opinion polls by Infotrak (carried out for Nation Media Group, May 12, 2022) and Radio Africa Group (in the Star, May 25, 2022) show that both Raila of Azimio and Ruto of KKA are in a dead heat. 

The Infotrak poll showed each of them commanding 42 per cent. The Radio Africa Group poll of May 25, 2022 had Ruto commanding a 43 per cent lead and Raila at 42 per cent.

A survey by TIFA (May 18, 2022) had different findings. The survey conducted after the appointment running mates Martha Karua by Raila and Rigathi Gachagua by Ruto showed Raila commanding a 39 per cent lead and Ruto trailing at 35 per cent. This is a difference of four percentage points.

The sample sizes for these surveys differ and so do the margins of error. This notwithstanding, these are the only survey findings published thus far. 

Although they use CATI and SMSs to collect their data, there is comfort in that the databases from which they sample respondents is typical of Kenyan voters. 

Close presidential election

As argued in my recent Sunday Nation article, the main caveat here is that their sampling procedure does not give all registered voters equal chance to be interviewed (‘The politics of opinion polls in Kenya: What we need to know’, May 15, 2022). This probability only applies to those in their databases.

However, the findings are sufficient to conclude that we are headed to a close presidential election. 

The number of undecided voters, those who are not yet committed on who they will vote as president, has reduced significantly. 

The number of undecided voters and those who refuse to disclose their preferences, combined, is significant enough to break the tie. 

Of course, the total number of voters in this category will not vote evenly between the leading candidates. 

The undecided can vote for even the fringe candidates. Those who refuse to mention their preferences could also be doing so probably because their candidates are too weak to perform well.

There are several possible reasons why the election looks too close to call. 

First is the fact that we do not have radical differences in campaign issues. 

There are no radical policy choices, if any. In the past elections, voters were often presented with at least two competing issues: governance reforms versus economic development issues. 

Building the economy

Issues about governance and political reforms dominated past elections, with an emphasis on promoting social justice, equity in distribution of national development resources, inclusive politics and inclusive political power. 

Economic issues would compete against these with a focus on equitable development and correcting inequalities in development, among others.

The 2022 election campaign issues are not radical in terms of differences. 

The Deputy President is talking about the economy and the need to address unemployment and the cost of living. 

He has picked on building the economy from below. He has regional conversations identifying key issues for regions and counties.

Raila is also talking matters economy and the need to build industries to address unemployment. He has promised to address the cost of living and to lift up over eight millions Kenyans from poverty through direct cash transfers to about two million poor households. He has also developed a regional approach to the local economies. He has an economic message to each region as does Ruto.

The similarities do not end with a focus on the economy. Both groups have avoided difficult governance issues. 

Ruto has not pretended that he would make accountability and fight against corruption a priority. These are not his priorities. He says revitalising the economy is number one. 

On the other hand, the former Prime Minister, who everyone expected to prioritise the fight against corruption and promotion of accountability, appears caught between a rock and a hard place. 

Similar in many ways

He has the support of President Uhuru Kenyatta and he is, therefore, unable to bolt out and talk about governance failure in President Kenyatta’s government. In fact, he has even said that he will be in Uhuru’s shoes. 

Uhuru’s support prevents Raila from standing up against some of the intractable governance challenges that are the making of both Uhuru and his deputy. This takes away his valued asset – the character of an anti-establishment political leader that he has solidified over many years.

Voters argue that the two main alliances are made up of individuals who are similar in many ways. Individuals facing charges of corruption are on both sides and in key positions. Individuals with criminal cases weighing on their necks are also to be found on both sides too. 

Individuals who are running in order to enrich themselves are on both sides. Furthermore, the rent-seeking business elite who thrive on manipulating formulation of policies so as to make profits through government contracts dominate both sides. They will be financing the races, sometimes giving money to support each of these two horses.

There is another problem. Voters and candidates do not care about credibility of elections. Even voters themselves are not concerned about how their candidates will win – all they want is a win. Discussions with voters in several counties show that credibility of the election is not a bother to voters. 

Many argue that the candidates and the pool of politicians tagging along are similar in political behaviour and that they are there to serve personal interests. They say that they are very confident that the candidates themselves would not care how they win the election. They argue that all candidates from MCA to the president care about one thing: only to win and it does not matter how they do that.

Nonethless, many are counting on Karua if Odinga and Azimio win the election. They argue that she is capable of taming the rent-seekers, the corrupt and the business elite who finance campaigns to make a profit later. But that is where it ends.

This lack of interest in credibility of the election is so widespread among voters that it could lead to new forms of voter apathy. Many are giving up because even candidates for lower-level seats are not promising to serve the purpose that elections serve.

Overall, the August 2022 presidential election will be unprecedented and unique if we go by the reading of political events thus far.

Prof Karuti Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi, [email protected] @karutikk

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