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Kenya votes: What you need to know

Cristina Krippahl
August 9, 2022

Kenyans head to the polls on Tuesday to elect their fifth president since independence. The election pitches Vice President William Ruto against opposition leader Raila Odinga. DW looks at what's at stake.

A group of voters queue while waiting to vote in front on ballot boxes at a polling station
Much is at stake in this year's election in KenyaImage: Luis Tato/AFP

Kenya will not only be electing a new president on August 9, but also a new parliament and county governors.

But most eyes have been firmly set on the fiercely contested presidential race, which has featured astounding shifts of alliances, a first for women and even a front-runner crying in public.

Who is running?

Only four candidates have been cleared to run for president, out of an initial list of 17. This is the smallest number since the first multiparty election in 1992.

A grafitti of front-runners Raila Odinga and William Ruto shaking hands
Kenyans are hoping for a peaceful election between front-runners Raila Odinga and William RutoImage: Joerg Boethling/IMAGO

The constitution bars incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta from running again, after two five-year terms. But in a surprising move, Kenyatta has thrown his weight behind veteran opposition leader, Raila Odinga, putting an end to a bitter, decadeslong family feud between two of Kenya's wealthiest political families. 

Odinga, 77, is vying for the top seat under the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Coalition. It is his fifth try after defeats in 1997, 2007, 2013, and 2017. The president's support could play decisively in his favor. The same applies to his choice of running mate, Martha Karua, who would become the country's first female vice president if their ticket wins.

Odinga's main rival, Vice President William Ruto, 55, is a candidate for the Kenya Kwanza political alliance. He has built a power base among the country's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, despite not being from the community himself.

A recent video showing him shedding tears during a prayer service went viral, pulling at many heartstrings, but also earning him much derision on social media.

The competition between the two favorites is very close, leaving the two remaining candidates, George Wajackoyah and David Mwaure, struggling for the country's attention.

Who is eligible to vote?

More than 22 million Kenyans have registered to vote in 2022; more than half are women.

Voter turnout in Kenya is usually high, reaching 80% in 2017, and voter intention is also high this year. Some 93% of male voters have said that they plan to cast a ballot, and 91% of women, according to the mobile surveying platform GeoPoll

But only 50% of those eligible to vote for the first time have signed up, fueling fears of apathy among the youth. In a country where the median age is 20, many young people do not feel represented by the veteran political elite.

Voters looking for their names on the voters' roll
According to recent surveys, about 90% of eligible voters intend to cast their ballotImage: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP

Ethnicity is unlikely to influence voters as much as it has in the past. Neither front-runner is a member of the largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, who account for a quarter of overall votes. Most candidates have tried to win them over by naming deputies from central Kenya, which is their traditional homeland.

However, there has also been a deliberate attempt not to focus so much on ethnic politics, as this would be seen as not embracing the entire nation.

What are the issues?

As in previous elections, corruption and the economy remain key issues. The fallout from the mismanagement and subsequent ballooning debt of the Nairobi to Mombasa Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), financed and built by China, has been a constant feature of public debate. In addition, the enormous fortunes accumulated by the political elite, including presidential hopefuls, have been a hot topic.

Kenya is East Africa's main economic hub and has registered strong growth under Kenyatta's rule but the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and drought have pushed up prices for food and fuel. Furthermore, a third of the country's youth is unemployed and the nation is struggling with a major debt crisis. Nairobi owes its biggest creditor, China, $8 billion (€ 7.9 billion).

A man and a woman stand beside rhe Standard Gauge Railway SGR train
The Standard Gauge Railway has become a symbol of everything that is wrong in Kenyan politicsImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot/S. Ruibo

Could there be violence?

Electoral violence driven by ethnicity has been a constant in Kenya, culminating in the death of around 1,100 people and the displacement of up to 600,000 in 2007/2008 post-election violence.

But with the importance of ethnicity receding and less emphasis placed on the issue during the campaign than in the past, hopes are high that no significant violence will ensue in 2022.

However, many of the female politicians who have dared to stand in the election this year have already faced gender-based violence and abuse.

What about the international dimension?

Generally, the front-runners have said little about their foreign policy plans, instead concentrating on domestic issues during the campaign.

But the stakes are high for the whole of East Africa and also for the West, as Kenya is a key partner in the global fight against terrorism and considered an anchor of stability in a region beset by strife.

Why young Kenyans don't bother to vote

Under outgoing President Kenyatta, the country has led talks to broker peace between Rwanda and Congo. However, tensions are rising over accusations by the latter that the former is supporting the M23 rebel movement, further threatening security in the area.

Western governments hope that a trouble-free election will also enable Kenya to once again take up its critical diplomatic role in Ethiopia's peace talks.

Election results are expected by August 18. But given how tight the race is, a second round is likely in the presidential poll.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

Correction, August 9, 2022: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Martha Karua, Raila Odinga's running mate. DW apologizes for the error.

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