The general elections held in Kenya on August 9 were the seventh of their kind since the transition to a multi-party system at the beginning of the 1990’s. The goal of these elections was to choose a new head of state following the end of the second term of President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had been in office since 2013; the members of the bicameral legislative authority consisting of the National Assembly and the Senate; and the members of the local councils. The results of these elections have created a state of fear, especially in light of previous electoral experiences over the last decade and a half, which were accompanied by a lack of stability in the country.
On August 15, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) in Kenya announced the results of the general elections, which had a relatively small participation rate of about 65% and resulted in candidate William Ruto winning the presidency to become Kenya’s fifth president since independence. Ruto won in the first round of the elections after getting 7,176,141 votes, or 50.49% of the total votes, narrowly beating out the veteran leader of the opposition and former prime minister, Raila Odinga. Odinga—who won 6,942,930 votes, or 48.8% of the total votes—was running in the presidential election for the fifth time. He participated in four previous elections between 1997 and 2017, and was unsuccessful each time.
The winning candidate, Ruto, who is the outgoing vice president of Kenya under President Kenyatta, is 55 years old and belongs to the Kalenjin ethnic group, the third-largest group in the country at 13.4% of the total population. Ruto is a former teacher and earned a PhD in plant ecology from the University of Nairobi. He has experience in politics, having served as Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Higher Education under former President Mwai Kibaki. Ruto joined the Jubilee Party led by outgoing President Kenyatta and was the latter’s vice president for two terms beginning in 2013. However, he left that party due to differences with Kenyatta, joined the United Democratic Alliance, and became its candidate in these presidential elections.
In the parliamentary elections, the Kenya Kwanza coalition, to which President Ruto belongs, won the greatest number of seats in the Senate (33 out of 68 seats) and the second-highest number of seats in the National Assembly (159 out of 350), while the Azimio la Umoja ("Declaration of Unity") Alliance led by candidate Odinga won the greatest number of seats (162).
A number of considerations favored the winning candidate, Ruto—who is the second-youngest Kenyan president after outgoing President Kenyatta, who took office in 2013 at the age of 50—over his counterpart, opposition candidate Odinga, in the presidential elections. They can be summarized as follows:
1. The winning candidate’s reliance on a populist approach: During his election campaign, Ruto relied heavily on this approach to gain a wide base of support among Kenyan voters. He promoted his simple background selling chickens in his childhood and going on to become a prominent businessman, and he chose as his running mate a young parliamentarian from the Kikuyu ethnic group, Rigathi Gachagua, who enjoys acceptance among young people and the common folk. This approach focused mainly on transcending the politics of the elites or traditional ruling dynasties in Kenya that were directly linked to his opponent, Odinga, who relied primarily on an elitist approach, especially given the support he received from outgoing President Kenyatta. As a result, pre-election polls showed Odinga likely to win by a large percentage.
2. The ethnic factor: As a member of the Kikuyu, outgoing President Kenyatta’s endorsement was expected to attract support for Odinga from this group, which is the largest ethnic group at 17.1% of the total population, making it influential in elections. However, Odinga’s ethnic group, the Luo—the fourth-largest ethnic group at 10.7% of the total population—was at political odds with the Kikuyu for decades, and the reconciliation between the two groups after long periods of rivalry was not sufficient to mend the rift. This situation had a direct effect on Odinga’s opportunities to win the presidency, and Ruto grabbed the vote in Kikuyu areas by appealing to Kenyans economically rather than solely in traditional ethnic terms, despite the fact that Odinga chose as his running mate Martha Karua, a member of the Kikuyu and former Minister for Justice.
3. The adverse effect of former President Kenyatta’s support: The outgoing president’s endorsement of the opposition candidate had a potential negative effect on Odinga’s ability to gain the presidency, as large sectors of the electorate considered this support an indication of the continuation of Kenyatta’s policies under Odinga, should he win. In other words, this would mean limited opportunities to adopt change or a new and different approach to addressing the existing crises and issues at various levels in the country, especially at the economic and security levels.
4. The winning candidate’s previous political capital: This is linked to his opposition to an unpopular, year-long campaign by outgoing President Kenyatta and his deputy, Odinga, to change the constitution at a time when many Kenyans were suffering from difficult economic and social conditions, including loss of employment, after the Coronavirus pandemic. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that this step was unconstitutional, which greatly helped Ruto’s campaign. Furthermore, in 2016, he was exonerated and the charges against him were dropped in the trial he underwent with former President Kenyatta in the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands in 2013, in which he was accused of committing crimes against humanity following deadly violence during the 2007 elections.
5. The division within the IEBC over the election results: The announcement of the results was delayed for more than two hours after the constitutional deadline due to division among the members of Kenya’s IEBC over the announced results. Four of the seven IEBC members refused to certify the results announced by the chair, Wafula Chebukati, asserting that they lacked transparency and neutrality. IEBC vice-chair, Juliana Cherera, was among those disputing the results, but she provided no evidence of violations. In this framework, Chebukati announced that he had received threats but confirmed they would not obstruct the performance of his duties. He also noted that two IEBC commissioners and the executive director were injured.
6. The refusal of candidate Odinga’s alliance to recognize the election results: This existed both before the announcement of the results and after, when a brief state of chaos occurred at the national tallying center a short time after Odinga supporters rejected the results announced by the IEBC. In his initial statement following the announcement of the results, Odinga also refused to recognize Ruto’s victory in the presidential elections, noting that IEBC chair Wafula Chebukati had bypassed the constitution by unilaterally announcing the results without submitting them to review and discussion by the commissioners or members of the IEBC.
7. Protests by supporters of opposition candidate Odinga: Although Odinga’s supporters called for peace and tranquility in order to follow the constitutional methods for handling the announced results, large protests broke out in the city of Kisumu, an Odinga stronghold, and in parts of the capital of Nairobi. Meanwhile, there were celebrations in other parts of the country, particularly in the Rift Valley, where the winning candidate, Ruto, has strong support, and the Central Region, where his running mate, Rigathi Gachagua, is popular.
President Ruto’s victory suggests many possible repercussions for the domestic political scene in Kenya, which can be identified as follows:
1. Potential instability in the country: There are fears that potential allegations of election fraud by Odinga and his supporters could lead to a legal challenge or even to widespread violence—as occurred in the country after the 2007 elections, when at least 1,200 people were killed and about 600,000 others fled their homes—or to a repeat of the scenario of redoing the elections by a ruling of the Supreme Court, as happened in 2017, when there was also violence in the country, resulting in the death of more than 100 people. This leaves Kenya facing nearly three critical weeks of uncertainty, especially if candidate Odinga submits a petition within a week of the results being announced to the Supreme Court, which is supposed to rule on electoral petitions or appeals within two weeks of their submission.
Odinga will likely take this path, given his initial statement after the announcement of the results indicating that he will pursue all available constitutional options. Odinga also challenged elections in 2013 and 2017, and he senses the difficulty of running in the future for a sixth time in the upcoming elections to be held in 2027, especially given his advanced age of 77 years.
2. Growing popular pressures to address urgent economic issues: These pressures are expected to increase for President Ruto at the beginning of his term, especially given the difficult economic circumstances in Kenya. The country’s public debt is more than KES 8.5 trillion (55 billion pounds sterling), and unemployment rates have increased to nearly 40% for those aged 18-34. The economy is also not creating enough jobs to absorb the 800,000 young people entering the job market each year, and food and fuel prices are rising sharply, especially amid the growing impacts of the Russian-Ukrainian war on Africa, which began in late February of 2022 and exacerbated the difficult repercussions of the Coronavirus pandemic at various levels.
3. Crystallization of efforts to achieve balance between ethnic groups in the country: This is expected to be the first priority for President Ruto’s agenda, which was crystallized in his first speech affirming the adoption of a policy of openness for all without exception and management of the country through a transparent, democratic government that works with the political opposition in a way that enables the latter to monitor the work of this government.
This means that Ruto is aware that societal disparities—primarily ethnic—are a key factor in Kenyan politics. Although he belongs to the Kalenjin ethnic group, he will seek to confirm that his government represents the various ethnic groups in the country, including the Kikuyu group, from which he chose his running mate. The Kikuyu have played an influential role in political life since independence in 1963, with four former presidents belonging to it, the last of whom was former President Kenyatta. The Luo group, to which losing candidate Odinga belongs, is also key, especially since no candidate from this group has won the presidency in the history of Kenya, which may cause it to feel marginalized and oppressed.
In conclusion, the future outlook for the political scene in Kenya after the announcement of the election results gives a sense of anticipation mixed with caution about a return to domestic instability in the country through the use of violence in the electoral process, as happened before. This depends on the expected outcomes of the constitutional path that the losing candidate, Odinga, will resort to as a way to express his objection to the election results. Whether or not these results are ruled proper, they will have a direct impact on the upcoming situation in the country at all levels.