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  • Robert Colton Wirtz

Will the Kenyan Election Become a Replay of the Past?

It seems that there is no rest in sight for the Kenyan electoral system, which has blown from one crisis to another since the August 8th presidential election was declared invalid by the nation's Supreme Court. The election, a victory for incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, was invalidated by Kenya’s highest court after charges of “irregularities and illegalities” committed by the ruling Jubilee Party were confirmed. Since then the nominally nonpartisan Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission has faced accusations of corruption as they attempt to execute the planned election rerun on October 26th.

The October deadline, declared unrealistic at the outset by many international observers, seems less and less likely to be met as both opposition and Government levy demands and throw up roadblocks. Both the judiciary and opposition ODM Party have reported harassment at the hands of Presidential supporters. President Kenyatta himself has been touring the country denouncing the Court’s ruling. While the President has stated he will accept the results of the rerun, the Jubilee-dominated Parliament has initiated alterations to Kenya’s election law which the opposition claims will benefit the ruling party.

However, opposition forces in Kenya have proven themselves equally determined. Earlier in September, the Opposition Party Coalition in Parliament formally boycotted legislative proceedings, arguing that Parliament lacks legitimacy until the election rerun is concluded. Kenyatta’s Jubileee Party, which holds a healthy majority, has continued on without them. The opposition candidate and former Prime Minister of Kenya Raila Odinga, as stubborn as President Kenyatta, declaring on Friday September 29th that he would not participate in the election unless his demands regarding the electoral process were met.

This most recent boycott declaration, a result of Jubilee's legal alterations, may seem odd for a candidate that lost the first election and holds few visible cards. However, Kenya’s electoral history is closely tied to the ethnic and tribal divides of the country, a system that prioritizes confrontation over concession. This system, where power and wealth hangs in the balance, makes power transitions difficult, and sometimes violent. Previous disputes over elections in Kenya have led to conflict; the most serious being in 2007, when clashes left more than 1,100 people dead and forced 350,000 more to flee their homes. The 2007 crisis also stemmed from an election in which voter fraud was accused and neither candidate stood down, a situation unsettlingly similar to today. These past explosions of violence have darkened the reputation of the country which otherwise enjoys a position as one of the more stable African nations.

The history of modern Kenya is one of recurring names and faces, and this election is no different. Both Kenyatta and Odinga are sons of early Kenyan politicians, the nation’s first President and Vice President respectively, and both benefit from powerful tribal bases, the Kikuyu and Luo, that stand to benefit if their candidate wins. While Kenya has left much of its authoritarian tradition in the past, a sitting President is still expected to enrich his allies and place kinsmen in key government positions. The bloodshed and chaos of 2007 is fresh in the minds of both Kenyans and international observers, and at first glance 2017 may seem to be shaping up for a tragic replay.

However, there is room for optimism. The Kenya of 2007 lacked a Supreme Court confident enough to declare a rerun and an incumbent willing to honor it. If the new election is allowed to occur and the results are accepted by both parties, Kenya will show the world that change for the better is possible. Surely no one would be happier than the people of Kenya themselves.

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