How Kenya’s high-stakes election will be won

This photograph taken on August 1, 2022, shows a ballot box of the presidential election.

This photograph taken on August 1, 2022, shows a ballot box of the presidential election before being transported to a polling station, at a warehouse in Nairobi, Kenya.

Photo credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The 2022 presidential poll will be won by the power of strategy.
  • Ultimately, the election will be won in a possible final battle in the Supreme Court of Kenya.

All eyes are on Kenya, one of Africa’s leading economies, which will be electing a new president on August 9.

Billed as the country’s ‘most competitive’ and ‘high stakes’ vote and Africa’s most ‘consequential’ event in 2022, the presidential contest is a perfect battle of the titans.

The front-runner is Raila Odinga,77, former Prime Minister and the favourite of the incumbent, President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is making his fifth shot at the presidency.

The challenger is William Ruto, 55, a youthful maverick and Kenyatta’s populist deputy who is making his first stab at Kenya’s highest office.

Elections are won long before the first ballot is cast. This we know. But how, precisely, will Kenya’s presidential poll be won?

The battle for the chief executive officer is the high point of a 'six-elections-in-one’ event that takes place on a single day every five years.

On D-Day, 22.1 million registered voters will be expected to elect 404 parliamentarians, including 290 National Assembly members, 47 out of 67 senators (the rest nominated by parties) and 47 women reps.

Also to be elected are occupants of 1,497 offices in 47 devolved units, including 47 governors and 1,450 members of county assemblies.

Kenya’s 2010 Constitution puts the bar high for President Kenyatta’s successor.

Power of strategy

He must clinch at least 50 per cent-plus-one of all the presidential votes cast and no less than 25 per cent of the vote in a minimum of 24 counties to be declared a first-round winner or a run-off will be held between the first two top contenders in the first round.

For starters, the 2022 presidential poll will be won by the power of strategy.

It is the educator, Michael Porter, who once evinced that “Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different”.

In about five years, a carefully crafted and executed strategy has catapulted Odinga into the man-to-beat in Kenya’s life-changing presidential poll. Odinga’s strategy had a rocky, almost unsavoury, start.

After garnering 44.9 per cent of the 2017 vote, Odinga shocked the world when he had himself sworn in as the “people’s president” on January 30, 2018.

Odinga risked a treason charge, and Kenya teetered on the brink.

But influential Kenyans and the country’s international partners called on Kenyatta and Odinga to enter into talks.

On March 9, 2018, the bitter foes entered into ‘handshake’, becoming bosom friends.

Odinga had won a crucial ‘scramble for Kenyatta’! Ruto, the then undisputed ‘crown prince,’ had lost. 

As a counter-strategy, Ruto turned to the infamous “Samson Option”, spiced with a tinge of economic populism.

He coined the phrase “hustler nation” and styled himself as the champion of the poor in a class war against the ‘dynasties’ (the rich).

He tapped deep into the veins of the growing poverty, debt crisis and the socio-economic spin-offs of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

His ‘Tangatanga’ brigade out-numbered, out-gunned and vanquished pro-Kenyatta’s ‘Kieleweke’ squad.

For the first time, the Mt Kenya region did not field a strong presidential candidate, making it a swing-vote region.

Ruto claimed the region’s ‘kingpin’ throne. He unfurled a well-funded and robust campaign to control the region’s 5.8 million votes and maintain the ‘tyranny of numbers’.

Key towering heights 

Since November last year, Odinga has put up a spirited battle for the Mountain, winning key towering heights of the region’s power.

He was endorsed by the Mount Kenya Foundation, one of the country’s most influential and wealthy lobbies in the region.

In mid-July, the club raised hundreds of millions for Odinga’s campaign in an exclusive one-million-per-plate dinner.

In the election’s last mile, the issue hinges on who will carry Mount Kenya. 

On May 15, 2022, Odinga picked Martha Karua as his running mate.

The move raised Azimio’s support base among women and lobbies, his acceptability in Mt Kenya and his national ratings.

Conversely, Ruto’s choice of Rigathi Gachagua as running mate breathed new life into the Azimio anti-graft campaign. 

In the February-May hiatus, Odinga’s strategists successfully mounted well-executed political diplomacy that effectively turned the August election into a perfect two-horse race.

Even with Prof George Wajackoyah of Roots party and David Waihiga of Agano party going for the top seat, it is a Raila-Ruto race.

Azimio’s political diplomacy blitz enabled Odinga to rally 29 political parties compared to 12 parties for Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza alliance.

Azimio managed to win over Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper Democratic Movement), which commands approximately nine per cent of Kenya’s vote, from forming a ‘third force’ and pushing the election to a risky run-off.

With the official two-month campaign period over, all opinion polls put Odinga in the lead.

An over-60 per cent win would give the winner an overwhelming mandate to introduce sweeping changes and secure the nation. 

Ultimately, the election will be won in a possible final battle in the Supreme Court of Kenya.

The court has the power to nullify the election and call for a repeat poll and has used it before.

To avoid this scenario, Chief Justice Martha Koome has rightly urged IEBC to address integrity issues that led to the nullification of the 2017 presidential election.

Meanwhile, candidates had to avoid negative rhetoric, lower political temperatures and commit to either accepting the outcome or challenging it exclusively in the courts.

Prof Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser, now Chief Executive at Africa Policy Institute and Adjunct Scholar at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University, Kenya.