In Kenya, cautious optimism for the country’s presidential election – Chicago Tribune


Kenyans headed to the polls on Tuesday to vote in a highly anticipated presidential election, along with dozens of contests for governors, senators and other positions across the country. The outcome won’t just matter to Kenyans either. The tense East African region sees Kenya as a source of stability, so its neighbors are also eager to see peaceful outcomes.

Elections in Kenya have a troubled history, but with the decline of democracy in so much of the globe, Kenya stands this year as a possible beacon of hope.

Local and international media have portrayed voter turnout as bad news, as it is down this year from an impressive 80% in the last election. This would reflect a disenchanted electorate. But the final tally, according to Kenya’s Independent Electoral Commission, was still over 65%. For context, this almost equates to the high point that US turnout has reached in 2020. Kenya’s least interested electorate is as engaged as the most eager US electorate. No one in Kenya takes democracy for granted.

The process has also been peaceful so far. This could change as the results are announced, but the atmosphere does not seem as charged as before.

The country’s recent past has been marked by electoral violence fueled by political leaders in contests traditionally decided along ethnic lines. More than 1,200 people were killed in the aftermath of the 2007 election. The last election in 2017 saw far less unrest, but it still included the murder of an election official days before the vote and dozens of people killed in the violence afterwards.

During this election, I was living in Naivasha, a town in the Rift Valley which experienced significant violence after the 2007 elections. It became eerily quiet before election day as many people stayed home or fled to other parts of the country expecting unrest.

While the fear was palpable, the feeling was that people were tired of the violence and impatient with the politicians who encouraged it. Kenyans who wanted to move on with their lives turned out to be less susceptible to the bait. Fewer people have felt the need to flee their homes this year, and it seems politicians now know better than to screw it all up (at least so far).

Another sign that democracy is working is the element of surprise. The top-to-bottom races of the ballot were highly competitive, all the way to the presidency. No outcome has been predetermined, and who will win the top job remains uncertain as the Independent Electoral Commission continues its counting process.

We cannot say the same for many other countries across the continent. Take Uganda or Cameroon, where unfree elections only cement the power of presidents for life, or Mozambique, where a single ruling party has dictated leadership since independence. Voters in Kenya will have a say and, if the result is accepted (or peacefully challenged in accordance with the constitution), the system will have worked as intended.

It’s also worth noting that this year’s voters are deciding based on issues, not ethnicity. It helps that this is the first time in 20 years that a member of Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, has not been on the ballot for first place. But Kenyans are also reacting to the soaring cost of living and the unemployment crisis. They vote for who they think will best take care of the national economy rather than who is most likely to watch over their tribe. This change could change the policy in a way that makes it less risky or prone to violence.

The irony that US elections are becoming more tribal with an increased fear of violence at the same time is hard to ignore.

I reached out to Jeff Smith, founding director of Vanguard Africa, to ask how things were going on election day. He and his team were monitoring polls in Kisumu, another hotspot of election violence in the past. “A few minor issues but nothing of interest or concern at the moment,” he replied.

Indeed, what was most remarkable about Election Day in Kenya was how mundane it was. While that could change if the uncertainty continues or the outcome is disputed, the signs suggest more stability than before.

Kenya and its elections are far from perfect. Politics is dominated by dynastic political families and the ultra-wealthy class, and the country’s independent electoral commission has a controversial past. This election is not over yet either. The results are still being compiled and there is plenty of time for disgruntled politicians to wreak havoc in the days and weeks ahead.

Whoever wins, the next president will also face tough challenges, as Kenyans struggle with high prices, destructive drought and rampant corruption. Any of these issues could cause violence or other instability under the right cocktail of conditions.

But if politicians and the public can avoid doing anything more newsworthy after the election, Kenyans have reason to be optimistic about the country’s democratic progress.

Elizabeth Shackelford is a research fellow on American foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously an American diplomat and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age”.

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