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US, Kenya election similarities offer food for thought on 2022

By Maina Kiai | September 22nd 2019

The US presidential election season is progressing rather more slowly than expected, with the election just over a year away in November 2020. In fact, even though ours are due in 2022, there is more energy, intrigues, backstabbing and rabble-rousing than in the US. The Republican ticket is all but sealed with Donald Trump assured of getting re-nominated unless he declines, or something really negative happens. It is unclear what sort of sordid revelation could ever prove debilitating for Mr Trump, for he has a knack of surviving incredibly negative and sordid revelations like no one else.  

He lied about the crowd size at his inauguration and forced the authorities to manipulate pictures to prove his lie. He has refused to publicly disclose his taxes—a first for anyone seeking political office in the US—and gotten away with it. And recently, he got confused about the path of Hurricane Dorian, and instead of admitting his mistake, he changed the metrological map with a marker, and then got government experts to back up his lie! Mr Trump is aware of his Teflon-like image and he famously stated in 2016 at a rally in Iowa that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

The three declared challengers for the nomination are not deterred, even though they understand that the Republican Party has morphed dramatically and is now basically Trump’s party. So much so that Republican Congressional leaders are scared to challenge, critique or contradict Mr Trump, and they have abdicated their constitutional oversight role over the Executive.  The challengers, who include former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, are perhaps hoping that one of the revelations against Mr Trump will finally stick and he will then fold. But they are also aware that if they do reasonably well in some of the primaries, they could damage Mr Trump sufficiently that he does not do as well as he hopes in the election itself.

There is a precedent for this, such as when Ted Kennedy weakened President Jimmy Carter in 1980 in New Hampshire that he eventually lost to Ronald Reagan. Or when Pat Buchanan’s challenge to George HW Bush in 1992, weakened him enough to be beaten by Bill Clinton.

No matter the reasons that these Republicans have in challenging Mr Trump, they are not generating much enthusiasm or discussion, especially here in Washington DC, where I am at present. DC is very much a Democratic Party zone and has overwhelmingly voted for the Democratic Party candidate in every presidential election.

I visited DC in 2007 and was based here during the election itself from September to December 2008, and the mood then was vastly different from now. In 2017, even before the first primary had been conducted, there was an energy and expectation around the primaries, as Barack Obama caught the imagination of Americans. He was electrifying in his speeches, his approach and his campaigning methods.

Hedging their belts

But many, especially in the African American community did not dare hope too much, unable to believe that a black man could get the necessary support from the white community. In fact, many black leaders publicly supported Hillary Clinton at first, hedging their bets. But whatever anyone thought, hoped or dreamed for, there was excitement in the fervent debates and discussions across DC and the US. Eventually, the tide for Mr Obama shifted after he did better than expected in the Iowa primaries and then in New Hampshire, releasing the silent hopes of the youth, blacks, others into loud support. By middle of 2008, he was unstoppable, though Ms Clinton maintained a valiant and vigorous effort.

This year, while there are discussions aplenty and good turnouts watching the televised debates, one senses determination rather than passion or excitement. People do have preferred candidates, but the support is fluid rather than cemented. Above all, the mood seems to be that “it really does not matter who the nominee is, what is important is that we get out the vote and vote out Trump.”

This tactic seems to have also been adopted by the candidates and there is way less hostility and viciousness between them than there was in 2015/16, except for a few tart barbs during the debates. 2016 was so heated, so angry and so divisive that many of Bernie Sanders supporters opted not to vote. That combined with the overconfidence that Ms Clinton’s victory was assured, eventually led to Mr Trump being declared president even though he got 3 million votes less than Ms Clinton.

Interestingly, this “anyone but Trump” approach is reminiscent of our own elections in 2002, when the country was so tired of Daniel Moi and the Kanu regime, that it became “anyone but Moi and his project.” I wonder today, given the scandals, growing poverty, looting and the constant use of force and compulsion on everything, if Kenyans are tired enough to want a clean break from the entire UhuRuto regime. Is it naïve to hope that all those aspiring will agree that the country will be better off with “anyone by Ruto?”

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