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Why 2022 elections are a great leap in Kenya's political culture

Ballot boxes at a tallying centre in Nairobi. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

All things remaining constant, the 2022 General Election may be one of the biggest leaps into a new dawn for Kenya. While it is not clear who the president-elect will be at the time of writing this article, there are clear firsts in this election.

Despite the obvious low voter turnout, Kenyans have conducted themselves with great civility before, during and after the elections. In addition, from the early outcomes of the other five elections outside the presidency, the people seem to have defied the traditional party dictatorship for six-piece voting lines in many places. At the presidential level, there are noticeable shifts in the voting demographics that may redefine the future of national elections in country.

For the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), there will be many lessons to pick from this election. Scaling up the utilisation of information technologies from the several by-elections done since 2017, the commission succeeded in moving the primary source document, form 34A from all 46,229 polling stations in record time. The by-elections provided a perfect window to pilot and perfect their systems and operations without anyone noticing. This was after the annulment of the presidential election in 2017.  

The triple impact of this was to remove undue pressure from Returning Officers at the polling station, eliminate any possibility or suspicions of ballot stuffing and allow anyone who wants to tally the votes on their own access the primary data from a centralised portal. The questions we must ask now are: are there lessons that have emerged so far? What is the future of democracy in the country?

There will be many things to analyse and study about these elections once the dust is fully settled. But as of now, there are seven themes that have emerged that may define the path of our democracy in future. One is the convergence towards two dominant formations and/or political parties. Whether by design or out of marriages of convenience, the emerging pattern for two dominant candidates for the presidential ballot since 2013 may eventually shift the future of our democracy into a two dominant party system. The alliance of the tribal kings maybe drawing us into a two party system unintentionally.

In this election, while the Azimio la Umoja remained a coalition on interests, the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) formation opted for taking a single party identity with significant successes in their strongholds. Should internal competition among the Azimio formation cost them legislative majorities in Parliament and across the counties, this may shift party behaviours in future. This convergence may ultimately enhance the shift towards strong parties.

Two is re-organisation of the national electoral demographics. The overwhelming support of the UDA candidates in the Mt Kenya region will be something to watch in the coming days. It had traditionally been thought as the last bastion in the country not to cross ethnic barriers to vote outside the community’s political figurehead. If there were any steriotypes left among the ethnic and cultural diversity among political analysts and strategists, then this election has demolished them.

This is a true testament that communities and societies are never static edifices but groups of people with shifting belief systems, values and norms. A reversal to pure ethinic mobilisation for national office shall be a tough call in the days to come. Three is the individual responsibility of the leaders/candidates in post election behaviour of their supporters and general peace in the country. The restrain not to call for any press briefings or issue statements on the electoral process by any candidate so far seems to have played a big role in the calmness after the voting exercise. In previous elections, the tallying process has been marred by incessant interruptions by party pressers, flaring temperatures across their strongholds. Whether prioritizing presidential tally at the polling station, relaying and making them public is the magic wand that did the trick will be known in the days to come.

Four is the diminishing power of personality cults around our politics. While it is not unique even in most advanced democracies to have personalities with mass influence in a country’s politics, in Kenya, these personality cults seem to have held communities like a spell. The increasing rise of the hoi polloi to express their free will against the wishes of party leaders is a welcome breath of fresh air. This offer hope that soon, in our life time, a time may come when party loyalty or hero worship will not be the defining factor into leadership positions and power in the country.

Who knows, we may wake up to an era where communities will identify their own leaders from among themselves and sponsor them into authority and responsibility. Five is the future of the mythology around the invisible Deep State. While no one can authoritatively put a face into this dark shadows, there existence or lack of it cannot be entirely wished away from the management and administration of previous elections.

With the open portal and the IEBC’s confidence in their own system, it seems the commission might have pulled a first one for such shadows if it’s true they do exist. What was left was for the different political formation bloggers going after each other on social media. In the meantime, Chairman Chebukati and his team were going about their business calmly. I was actually amused at some point when he expressed surprise that the media houses were behind them in doing their own tallies and whoever else wished to do so. That may ultimately have been the masterpiece in this election!

Money factor

Six will be the place of handouts and modalities of financing elections in this country. This will probably be among the dark spots in this election when the sum total of it all is evaluated. It is without a doubt either side of the campaigns was well oiled. From whose source no one knows except their innermost circles. What can’t escape notice of a keen observer, however, is that there was extensive use to State resources for both the leading contenders. This is an obvious contravention of the electoral laws. Did this work to the extreme disadvantage of the candidacy of George Wajackoyah and Waihiga Mwaure? Is there a chance for an Obama kind of moment in the nearby future?

Finally, the question that will remain open for discussion for many days to come is whether issues affecting ordinary folks had any bearing to the final outcome in the elections. Given, the campaign environment was rife for a definitive emergence of an issue based politics. With an extremely tight fiscal space for whoever wins, a crippling cost of living for the middle-class and the poor masses, huge unemployment and/or under employment and the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, there can never have been a better moment to turn this into an issue based one.

At the political front, the aftermath of the 9th March 2018 ‘Handshake’ and fallout of the subsequent Building Bridges Initiative, the table had effectively been set. If this will be another defining factor when the combat is over will be subject for study for many years to come. Will it be the moment that made Raila Odinga the 5th? Or will it be a ‘Deep State’ miscaculation that galvanized a hustler movement to carry William Ruto to the 5th? Hopefully, by the time this is out from print, the jury would have laid it all bare.

From this desk, my sincere and heartfelt congratulations to the winner and our next President.

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