Kenya’s political situation is cloaked in uncertainty as the country prepares for vital elections a year from now, with significant constitutional amendments deferred for the time being and swirling new coalitions forming.
Here’s how Kenya got here and what to expect next August when the East African giant elects a new president and parliament.
Kenya’s Court of Appeal denied President Uhuru Kenyatta’s attempt to amend the constitution on August 21, stating that he lacked the authority to do so. The judgment was the latest twist in a national debate that has raged since 2018.
The so-called Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), according to Kenyatta, would extend the executive and alter the winner-take-all electoral system, which has been blamed for the country’s periodic outbreaks of poll-related violence.
However, his critics regarded it as nothing more than a brazen power grab by a two-term president who is unable to run for a third term, with the BBI potentially allowing him to assume the new role of prime minister.
The significant revisions would not only create new positions, but also raise the number of parliamentarians from 290 to 360, forcing new alliances in the hopes of dividing the rewards come election time.
Those aspirations were dashed by Friday’s decision.
Even if Kenyatta takes his case to the Supreme Court, the outcome will be too late for him to implement his plan before the August 9 election, leaving the field wide open.
Following deadly post-election hostilities in 2017, Kenyatta and his long-time rival Raila Odinga announced a truce with a headline-grabbing handshake in March 2018, following deadly post-election clashes in 2017.
The agreement fueled speculation that Odinga would succeed Kenyatta, who would then become Prime Minister, and that other leaders would be convinced to follow suit in exchange for new positions.
Kenyatta’s initial choice for his successor in 2022, Deputy President William Ruto, was left out in the cold.
The president challenged his deputy to resign “if he is not pleased” this week, revealing their tense relationship.
However, with the BBI on its final legs, questions have arisen about how long the Kenyatta-Odinga partnership will continue.
“The main question will be whether the Odinga-led alliance can hold together in the absence of the BBI?” Nic Cheeseman, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, agreed.
“What roles will have to be offered to people in order for them to abandon their presidential dreams and join Odinga’s campaign?”
Ruto, who has positioned himself as a candidate for ordinary Kenyans, applauded the decision, calling it a triumph for “the Hustlers” struggling to live in a country governed by political dynasties like Kenyatta and Odinga.
Experts say ethnic factors, which have traditionally played a major part in Kenyan politics, may no longer have the same weight in a country with 44 tribes in the 2022 election.
According to Kenyan political expert Nerima Wako-Ojiwa, ethnic affiliations will still count at the vote box, but they will not be “the dominant conversation” topic.
“Young people do not necessarily identify with the ethnic language used in the past,” she told AFP, noting that when children reach voting age, Kenya would add six million more prospective voters in 2022 than in 2017.
The competition for the youth vote, as well as common priorities like restoring the Covid-19 ravaged economy and boosting healthcare, will play a huge role in choosing the victor of next year’s race, she said.
That might be excellent news for Ruto, who is a member of the Kalenjin ethnic group but has tried to run a campaign that cuts over tribal divides in order to get support from all Kenyans who are economically marginalized.
Kenyan presidential elections have traditionally been a two-horse battle, but that may be changing today.
According to Cheeseman, it’s “quite feasible in this election… that we actually have three or four viable candidates.”
In the run-up to the election, such a scenario would elicit more discussion about potential candidates.
It would also make it difficult for any contender to win with the requisite 50 percent plus one vote, he noted, increasing the chances of a historic second presidential round.