A Presidential Candidate of One’s Own: Ethnic Block Votes in Kenya

Like many others, the Kenyan election is usually not well-covered in international media, which is a pity since it has many interesting components. On top of the constant rumors of corruption and a current president charged with crimes against humanity, there is also an interesting voting system in place. Most likely, ethnic groups are what the election will come down to. 

In about four months, August 8, there is a general election in Kenya. The two different sides are the governing Jubilee Party of Kenya and the opposition CORD (Coalition for Reforms and Democracy). The current president, as well as the son of the country’s first ever president, Uhuru Kenyatta belongs to the former one. CORD mainly consists of a triumvirate of Raila Odinga (prime minister between 2008-2013), Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetangula. These four important people in Kenyan politics all belong to different ethnic groups; Kenyatta is a Kikuyu, Odinga a Luo, Musyoka a Kamba and Wetangula a Luhya. Knowing this is significant since most voters vote for the candidate with the same ethnicity as themselves. For example, a Kikuyu will most likely vote for Kenyatta, and a Luo will probably vote for Odinga.

Raila Odinga addressess the crowd at Uhuru Park in Nairobi during a rally flanked with journalists behind him and the crowd below. (Picture: Fredrick Onyango)

It is more complicated than that, since there are also problems with lack of information about the different candidates. You cannot count on every Kenyan having the possibility to take part in everyday news. Even if you are able to find information about the candidates, voting for a person with the same ethnicity can be seen as a safety for you, your family and your village. But it can also lead to blindness to what kind of politics the candidate really stands for. Another reason for ethnic block votes is not the ethnicity in itself but the geographic closeness to the candidate and the fear of what the other candidate could do to your home area.

These ethnic tensions have previously proven to have devastating consequences, as seen in the 2007 general election. Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, was declared president on December 30, 2007. The opposition candidate Raila Odinga and his party ODM called it electoral manipulation right away and rejected the results. Violent protests directly erupted in the country. The election violence was mostly targeted against Kikuyus. One of the worst examples is from Kiambaa village where 35 people, mostly children and unarmed women, were killed by being locked in a church and burned alive.

There was a huge international rallying cry to solve the crisis before it became even more devastating. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, led the negations between Kibaki and Odinga, and in the end the two were able to decide on a successful power-sharing agreement. Kibaki stayed as president and Odinga became the prime minister. The 2007-08 crisis approximately led to over 1000 people killed and over 200 000 displaced.

Protesters flee after being tear gassed in Nairobi in 2008. (Picture: Flickr)

There do not seem to be any violent trends in the presidential campaigns this year, but since corruption is widespread in the country and in politics it is possible that this election also will lead to accusations of electoral manipulation and protests. According to current calculations, Kenyatta will probably lose the presidency. That being said, it all depends on which party can mobilize the most supporters to both register and vote. This election is not only about getting the votes, but also about getting out the vote.

So what is the future of the ethnic block votes? It is almost impossible to see a clear answer right now, since it still seems to be so imprinted in people’s minds. Most Kenyans still live in rural areas, where it is more common to vote with your ethnic groups, since it creates a feeling of safety. The country also has one of the highest rural population growths in the world, which slows down the urbanization process.

Kenya has always been a country with many political and democratic difficulties and the ethnic block votes can be seen as one of them. The country is also known for rapid political changes which makes the election on August 8 interesting.

Anna Gillberg

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