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Raila Odinga, William Ruto face long anxious wait as voters troop to polling stations

Kenyans will today bring an end to a tumultuous, incessant and expensive campaign period as they go to the polls to elect the country’s fifth president and five other public officers while calling time, at least momentarily, to a brutal contest between the country’s two top politicians. For many, the votes they will cast represent more than the ascension of a favourite candidate. On these votes ride the hopes and ambitions of a nation, personified in the needs and wants of every Kenyan voter driven by a high cost of living that has settled in individual homesteads across the country.

This election should be a chance to fix what has gone wrong over the past decade or at least continue with the good that others believe has happened since President Uhuru Kenyatta took power ten years ago. Yet the months preceding today have been bereft of what the 22 million registered voters need and full of accusations and counter accusations from the political class underlined by lofty promises aimed at enticing voters to either side.

“Kenyans have told me they are tired, and I am the one who will relieve them of their troubles,” Raila Odinga said at his finally rally at Kasarani stadium, Nairobi, on Saturday. As Raila spoke, his political rival William Ruto was across the city at the Nyayo Stadium, rallying up his base as well and proclaiming his party and his candidature is the anointed one.

“We will prove to them that it is not the system that will elect the president but it is the people of Kenya who will do so,” Ruto said.

The spurring of the two top candidates happened with the rather unique backdrop of President Kenyatta’s influence. Over the past three years, the president has done little to hide his choice of successor.

In fact, with just days to the polls, the President went on a campaign blitz trying to push his candidate over the line that has always been shifting away from the approach of Raila, falling just short in his previous four attempts at the presidency.

Like many previous elections, the 2022 polls too have had their fair share of tension. As the political temperatures rose, Deputy President Ruto and his former bosom buddy and boss President Kenyatta went for each other’s jugular, each aiming to out-maneuver the other.

“This is a first of many. The stakes for the top candidates have never been this high,” political analyst Javan Bigambo says. “The two candidates’ political careers are pegged on the outcome of this election.”

Ruto has been on the campaign trail for the better part of Uhuru’s second term, defying predictions by his competitors, that him and his team had jumped the gun on their campaigns and started too soon. All this as, according to some, he abandoned his duty to the State. In Ruto, Raila has perhaps come face to face with his fiercest competitor to date, who never shied away from declaring his ambition to succeed Uhuru and had quite a head start in his campaigns.

The two have an intriguing history. Coming together when their interests converge and falling out, often acrimoniously, when their individual ambitions come to play leaving each man to resort to scorch earth methods when dealing with the other.

Bigambo though, says that this campaign period has had some positives. “The leading candidates did not make tribe an election agenda,” he says. “In as much as they chose their running mates through tribal arithmetic, tribe has not been at the centre of their campaign agenda and instead candidates have tried to base their electability on issues affecting the electorate.”

Previous elections have seen politicians peg electability on tribe, often causing divisions and strife within the electorate leading to violence, the worst being the 2007/2008 post-election violence that rocked the country. This left more than 1000 people dead and more than half a million displaced from their homes. Kenya’s elective process still presents a winner-takes-all scenario; therefore, results from today’s voting will have collateral. From the presidential candidates down to the ward level, there will be a few winners and many more losers the biggest of whom might be the electorate.

“Voters are making their choices based on campaign promises. Most of these promises though are seldom queried. Nobody asks these politicians how they will bring all these promises to life,” political analyst Prof Macharia Munene says. “After the dust has settled down, we will wake up on August 10 and realise nothing has changed in our lives.” This election may have provided a glimpse into the political future of the country. It is still early days, but ideology may soon find a place in the formation of political coalitions going forward.

Electoral breaches

Gender too might find its space with this election recording the biggest number of female candidates in the country’s history. “This may be so,” Bigambo argues. “But we are not there yet. Major political parties are still weaved together on tribe.”

Unfortunately, some traditional hurdles continue to dot the country’s journey towards democracy. Hurdles that the political class is either unable to shake off or is too willing to accommodate at the expense of the people. Raila and Ruto have benefited greatly from State resources. The former being openly endorsed by the sitting President and utilising State infrastructure in his campaigns with the latter vying for office while still on full benefits as a State officer.

“It is crucial that persons committing any forms of elections offences be indicted,” Bigambo says.

Unfortunately, State agencies mandated by law to enforce the Elections Offences Act remain ineffective, forced into a delicate balancing act of appeasing the candidates at the expense of upholding the law.

Elections represent change, and for the first time in 10 years Kenya will have a new occupant in State House on September 13, barring a re-run. Kenya’s next president will take charge of the country with the weight of the entire nation on his shoulders.

No other president has been faced with an in-tray as full as this one. Crippling debt, high inflation, a pending restructuring of government as recommended by the International Monetary Fund, a population disillusioned by leadership and an oncoming global recession will all provide company during the president’s first term.

There will be no place to hide for Kenya’s fifth president. Tough, unpopular decisions will have to be made, setting the next government on a trajectory of failure or success. Unfortunately, the next government will not have the luxury of time. The manifestos, whichever emerges victorious will be put to test immediately.