Key Issues to Watch in the Kenyan Election

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Written by Hayley Elszasz

The Kenyan presidential election on August 8 is one of the most important African elections to watch this year. It’s sure to be a close and potentially contentious election, with two familiar opponents in a country that has a history of electoral violence. Further, this seminal election could be an indicator of the state of democracy in Kenya and success of recent governmental reforms. This is the second election since the passage of the new constitution in 2010, and the votes will likely be a referendum on some of its successes and failures. But Kenya has faced myriad obstacles to peaceful elections in the past, and there are three main issues to watch as August 8 approaches: ongoing healthcare strikes, the role of false or defamatory news, and the potential for vote rigging.

After violence following a disputed election in 2007 left approximately 1,400 dead, Kenya embarked on a series of constitutional reforms to decentralize authority away from the government in Nairobi. One of the major components of the reforms was the devolution of power to the county level, including granting counties jurisdiction over primary and secondary healthcare. This constitutional reform has proven to be particularly strained, as most counties are neither well-equipped nor well-endowed enough to effectively run all hospitals and clinics. The failing of the counties, and of the national government to fund and oversee the counties, is evident in the numerous strikes occurring throughout the health sector.

The latest strike involved approximately 3,000 nurses and has been ongoing since early June, crippling the health sector in Kenya and causing delays in various forms of care. Following multiple strikes earlier this year, this latest slowdown in healthcare delivery has shown that devolution has not been the panacea that some thought it would be in fixing Kenya’s deep-seated governance ills. The failure of the ruling party, headed by President Kenyatta, to fund and regulate the operation of health facilities at the county level can and should be an issue that is considered in the upcoming election.

Another issue of great concern is the growing prevalence of election-related mudslinging. In an already tense environment, the distribution of defamatory headlines about candidates is contributing to fears about potential electoral violence. The spread of fake news is particularly rapid in Kenya, where articles can be shared widely due to the high rate of mobile and internet access, a relatively youthful population, and a large volume of Twitter use. In this election cycle, there has been a preference for fast news over accurate reporting as all manner of organizations and individuals vie to share the latest. Although organizations like Africa Check are working to sort fact from fiction, fake news can be spread widely and quickly, especially on online platforms. As Abdi Latif Dahir of Quartz Africa points out, however, even older and more traditional media like print newspapers are not immune from the proliferation of false headlines.

The method of vote counting and verification has also been an issue of concern in recent Kenyan elections, and it continues to be an issue to watch ahead of the August contest. Kenyan elections have a history of being ethnically-based, high-stakes, and reliant on a candidate’s ability to mobilize his bloc of supporters. The existence of these ethnic voting blocs has the potential to raise the stakes and spread the violence if a flare-up is to occur. In 2007, disagreement over vote tabulation led to mass violence and displacement. In 2013, the first election after the passage of the new constitution, the digital vote verification system failed. The fact that manual vote counting is more prone to rigging caused distrust in the outcome, even if this distrust did not explode into the same level of mass violence. The reliability of digital tabulation remains an issue for the 2017 election. While the opposition party attempted to make biometric vote verification a requirement, they were not successful in these efforts. If technology fails again in 2017, they will once again have to fall back on counting votes manually.

The United States also has an important stake in the future of Kenyan democracy, as Kenya is a rising African economy and democratic power. It boasts a high rate of voter turnoutcitizen engagement, and free press. However, Kenya also faces many challenges, including the implementation of its new constitution, delivery of key services to its population, and the entrenchment of electoral rules and regulations. This rising nation has a history of violence around elections, and the 2017 election promises to be a barometer of its progress toward ameliorating the factors leading to violence and entrenching democratic processes.

About the author: Hayley Elszasz is an Africa Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is also a Program Assistant with the Wilson Center Africa Program. Hayley earned her BA in Political Science and Global Studies from Williams College in 2016. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the organizations with which the author is affiliated.

UN Photo/Rick Bajornas