The devolution of Kenya’s government is changing the electoral picture as the country gears up for a general election on 8 August that pits President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party against Raila Odinga’s National Super Alliance (NASA).
The presidential race had long been viewed as a winner-takes-all fixture, with the victor capturing nearly all government resources. But since Kenya’s constitution was revised in 2010 to establish 47 counties and allocate 34% of the national budget to newly created local governments, gubernatorial contests are now seen as the most important by many voters.
Kenyans look to their governors to solve problems in their neighbourhoods, such as fixing roads, building schools and settling land disputes.
In the last election, held in 2013, the role of the county governments was untested. But this time around, many more politicians want to be governors. Politicial figures with national profiles – senators, members of parliament and former cabinet members – are running in gubernatorial races this year.
Standing next to a blue helicopter that is poised to fly to another stop on the campaign trail, Samuel Kuntai Ole Tunai, the governor of Narok County, says he will easily win the upcoming gubernatorial election.
“I believe on 8 August, [opposition leader Raila Odinga] will be in for a shock because this county’s going to vote 80% or 90% for Jubilee,” Tunai says as two helicopters take off nearby.
Tunai is up against Patrick Ntutu, who is a member of the Chama Cha Mashinani party and a member of parliament, and Joseph Tiampati of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), a former official in the government’s information and communications technology department. Both those parties are members of the NASA coalition.
As devolution has handed more power to county governments, it has also shifted electoral tensions to the races for these seats.
Next week’s election is not likely to see fighting on the scale of the 2007-2008 post-election crisis, when at least 1,100 people were killed in inter-ethnic violence and as many as 600,000 people were displaced from their homes. But it is likely to be more violent than the 2013 vote, when clashes were limited to a few isolated incidents.
In this election, clashes are most likely to break out around gubernatorial elections, says Hassan Mohamed, the head of Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), a government agency founded after the 2007 post-election crisis.
“There is a stiff contest in many places, so supporters are always fighting each other,” Mohamed says. “In Mandera, in Eldoret, in Kisumu, violence will happen. We have all these contests, especially for governors’ positions, where there will be localised violence.”
The nature of the fighting is likely to be different this time around, with violence along political rather than ethnic lines.
Chaotic party primaries, which earlier this year chose candidates to run on 8 August, have created some fault lines. Some of those who lost the primaries are now running as independents.
Jack Nyanungo Ranguma, the governor of Kisumu County, lost the ODM primary and is now an independent candidate. He will face off against Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, who won the place on the ODM gubernatorial ticket.
“The issue of independent candidates is a problem,” NCIC’s Mohamed says. “In Kisumu, in Homa Bay, in Siyaya, in Migori– those guys and their supporters will clash.”
Weak local game
The principal politicians behind the NASA coalition – an alliance of six parties – lobbied hard to amend the constitution to devolve power to county governments in 2010.
But this time around, NASA is not fielding any candidates in 13 of the country’s 47 gubernatorial races, raising questions about the alliance’s strategy in north-east and central areas. Jubilee has candidates in all but two gubernatorial contests.
“There was a strategic decision this time around to almost not campaign in areas where they thought that weren’t going to enjoy much of the vote and to focus more on their stronghold and their swing areas,” says Gabrielle Lynch, a professor at the University of Warwick. She adds that in the last election, the main opposition coalition invested heavily in areas home to members of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin groups, which are strongly aligned to the governing party, and did not see good value for money.
But while NASA is widely acknowledged to have less campaign financing than the Jubilee Party, experts question their strategy to limit their presence severely in vast swathes of the country.
“I think that was a mistake on their part – to not invest in those areas,” says Lynch.
Odinga has warned the electorate time and again of the possibility that Jubilee will rig the election, going as far as releasing documents purporting to outline a government plot to rig the election using the security services.
Experts say vote rigging is most likely to occur at polling stations in Jubilee strongholds. NASA’s limited presence in 13 counties will restrict the coalition’s ability to field staff at polling stations that experts say could be susceptible to rigging.
In the last election, there were no opposition agents at about 10% of the polling stations, according to Nic Cheeseman, a professor at the University of Birmingham.
NASA has promised to improve on that figure, but analysts say that NASA is unlikely to have agents at every polling station.
If neither presidential candidate gets more than 50% plus one vote in the first round of voting, a second round will be held. If that happens, governors will be an extremely important part of the party machinery, says Michael Chege, a professor at the University of Nairobi. “The new governors will be mobilised to campaign on party lines, and they will illegally use county funds and get away with it,” he says.
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