NAIROBI, Kenya – One is the self-proclaimed champion of ‘hustler nation’. The other is a veteran leftist who is in his fifth bid for high office. Both are products of Kenya’s calcified and corrupt political system, but claim they can transform it – if elected president.
The hotly contested race to lead East Africa’s flagship country Kenya reaches its climax on Tuesday as 22 million registered voters must choose between William Ruto, 55, currently the country’s vice president, and Raila Odinga, a 77-year-old politician. veteran who is making his fifth run for the presidency.
With the vote just days away, the race has been a headache – a testament to Kenya’s maturing democracy, which, despite its flaws, stands in contrast to other African countries where once-high democratic hopes have given way to votes fictional and military coups in recent years. .
For its Western allies, this is one of the reasons why Kenya – a booming technology hub, an important partner in the fight against terrorism and an anchor of stability in a region beset by famine and conflict – matter more than ever.
Yet elections in Kenya have always been a messy and unpredictable affair. Previous polls have been marred by widespread violence, lengthy courtroom drama and, in 2017, the murder of a senior election official days before the polls.
So far this time, the election season has been largely quiet, with even some encouraging signs of change. The corrosive ethnic politics that has dictated Kenyan politics for decades is showing signs of slowing. Fewer people fled their homes before the vote – fearing the houses would be burned down – than before.
Kenyans began lining up outside polling stations before dawn on Tuesday in a mid-morning vote that was proceeding largely smoothly across the country despite reports of delayed openings in some areas and difficulties with the biometric system used to identify voters in others.
The results are expected to start rolling in later in the week – with, almost inevitably, claims of loser rigging – so anxious that Kenyans will be holding their breath until then.
The two main candidates differ as much in style as in substance. Mr Ruto is the self-proclaimed champion of Kenya’s ‘scammers’ – the masses of frustrated young people, many of them poor, struggling to succeed in life. “Every Hustle Matters” reads the slogan on his bling-out campaign vehicle.
Mr. Ruto is determined and ambitious, although he also has a reputation for being ruthless. A decade ago, he was on trial at the International Criminal Court for orchestrating violence after the 2007 elections, in which more than 1,200 people were killed. The case collapsed in 2016 after the Kenyan government withdrew its cooperation and key witnesses recanted.
Mr Odinga, the scion of a legendary Kenyan political dynasty, offers familiarity – he has been vying for high office since the 1990s – as well as a sense of historical justification. His numerous failures to win the presidency have reinforced the sense of grievance of his fellow Luo, Kenya’s fourth largest ethnic group, for never having held the top spot in the country.
He was widely praised for his choice of a running mate, Martha Karua, a lawyer with a history of principled activism who, if elected, would be Kenya’s first female vice president.
However, Mr Odinga’s success in this election mainly comes down to a political alliance, known as the “handshake”, which he struck in 2018 with President Uhuru Kenyatta.
The deal ensured Mr Kenyatta, of the dominant Kikuyu ethnic group, backed Mr Odinga – and in turn made an enemy of Mr Kenyatta’s deputy, Mr Ruto, who spent much of the campaign criticizing his former boss.
The winning candidate needs 50% of the votes, plus one more. But a third candidate, George Wajackoyah – who is campaigning on a platform of legalizing marijuana and, more unusually, selling hyena testicles, said to have medicinal value, to China – could be a spoiler.
If Mr. Wajackoyah can convert his base of support, estimated at 3% in one poll, into votes, he could deprive the main candidates of a majority and push back the vote to a second round.