Kenyans go to the polls on Tuesday in an election that pits longtime opponent Raila Odinga against the country’s vice president, William Ruto.
Odinga, 77, a former prime minister, has led a campaign centered on social welfare and the fight against corruption. He is backed by his former nemesis, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had a falling out with Ruto during his last term.
Odinga and Kenyatta ended their long political rivalry after shaking hands in 2018, meant to mean they were emerging from a hard-fought and ethnically divided election in 2017 in a bid to unify the country.
“The handshake was welcomed in some quarters but received with skepticism in others,” says Murithi Mutiga, Africa program director at the International Crisis Group think tank. He added that some critics saw Kenyatta’s efforts to sway his succession in Odinga’s favor as a matter of parochial rather than national interest. Kenyatta and Odinga are from the founding families of the country and have significant wealth.
Ruto, 55, had a decades-long political career. The live chicken seller turned billionaire has been dogged by corruption allegations for years but has never been charged.
He has positioned himself in the race as an underdog and a class warrior – a move that observers say has given him a hard time in his efforts to take on the country’s most powerful political families.
The populist candidate presented a “bottom-up” economic model that he said would empower low-income communities.
With the country’s poor far outnumbering the rich and middle class, economic support could tip the balance in Ruto’s favor. Kenya is a very unequal country. Less than 0.1% of the population owns more than 99% of the country’s wealth, according to an Oxfam report. In Nairobi, more than 60% of the population lives in overcrowded informal settlements which occupy barely 5% of the total area of the city.
“Kenya has always been ripe for the kind of class politics that Ruto pushed,” says Mutiga. “Whether he wins or loses, he has had a definite impact on the public discourse around Kenya’s election campaign.”
But ethnic politics is still at the center of Kenyan elections. For the first time in more than a decade, there is no leading candidate from the Kikuyu community, Kenya’s largest ethnic group and the one that has produced the majority of the country’s presidents. Analysts say this diffused ethnic tensions in the 2022 election.
“Past elections tended to be divisive as they were essentially referendums on the perceived economic and political dominance of the Kikuyu elite,” Mutiga said.
With votes from the bloc up for grabs, competition for influence has been tough, and both Ruto and Odinga have chosen running mates from the heartland of Kikuyu people in south-central Kenya.
But the harsh economic realities facing Kenyans pushed the campaign beyond ethnic and personality-driven politics. The cost of living has soared, along with unemployment rates and public debt, prompting growing criticism of Kenyatta’s outgoing government.
“Kenyatta’s endorsement has been a mixed blessing for Odinga,” says Mutiga, adding that it has forced the latter to run a fairly conservative campaign. Odinga is accused of softening his criticism of the government since the 2018 handshake.
While the elections are high stakes for the political elite, they have generated little public interest. Indifference persists among young voters and some even boycott the elections.
Analysts say the public is exhausted by the shifting alliances. “He hardened the public from the excessive emotional investment he attached to elections in the past,” Mutiga says.
“They realized that the political elite is very little divided.”
Kenyans go to the polls amid soaring cost of living