kenya:Being an election year, it would be wise to expect the unexpected

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At 8pm (Kenyan time) on January 20, Donald Trump will ascend the steps of the American Congress on Capitol Hill to be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America.

It will undoubtedly be one of the moments of 2017, the capstone on the stunning events of 2016 that surprised political observers around the world. It will also be a possible scene-setter for what to expect in the New Year.

“We live in an age of uncertainty,” says Dr Bitange Ndemo, a lecturer on entrepreneurship and research methods at the University of Nairobi’s Business School.

“In fact, considering how 2016 went, with the shock victories of Trump and the Brexit campaign to get Britain out of the European Union, the best bet for 2017 is simply to expect the unexpected.”

The year 2017 will be an election year for Kenya, coming exactly a decade since the botched 2007 presidential election which saw more than 1,000 Kenyans lose their lives amid an outbreak of violence following the disputed election.

Just as in 2007, an incumbent will be seeking a second term in office against what might be a revitalised opposition ticket.

If the opposition successfully rallies behind a single candidate, it will set the stage for one of the most hotly contested elections in recent Kenyan history.

“In the abstract, one would expect that an incumbent enjoying state resources would have an easy ride to re-election and that the election would be less competitive than the last one,” says Dr Tom Wolf, a research analyst with pollster Ipsos.

“But the fact that nearly a quarter of respondents in polls are either undecided or wouldn’t answer the question as to who they will vote for suggests that if the opposition is able to convince them to vote for them, this would set the stage for a very competitive election.”

SECURE SECOND TERM

President Uhuru Kenyatta will be seeking to avoid making history by being the first Kenyan leader not to secure a second term in office when voters go to the polls in the second week of August.

His main opponent is yet to be revealed, with the key opposition figure, Raila Odinga, planning to rally his troops behind a new outfit, the National Super Alliance (Nasa), which he hopes will be the united opposition umbrella outfit going into the election. The next election will be a pivotal one for Mr Odinga, possibly the last in which the giant of Kenyan politics over the last two decades will be a key player.

“Much will depend on how the opposition organises itself and who they present as their flag-bearer,” says Dr Joshua Kivuva of the University of Nairobi’s political science department. “If they successfully unite and rally behind one candidate and if the candidate is seen as ‘unusual’, then the election will be very competitive. But if they don’t come together, Jubilee will enjoy a walkover.”

A recent opinion poll by Ipsos found that many Kenyans’ hopes and expectations about 2017 revolve around the economy.

Responding to the question “what are the main things you would like to achieve in the coming year”, 20 per cent of respondents listed saving more money, 16 per cent said they hoped to get a job while 14 per cent expressed the hope that they would be able to buy or build a house.

A lot of those expectations may be dashed, however. History shows that election years are bad for the economy, with output consistently declining every time the polls come around.

According to a paper by Prof Karuti Kanyinga of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, agricultural productivity has particularly been hard hit during election years.

COMPETITIVE ELECTIONS

The sector, which employs the majority of Kenyans, shrank by about 3 per cent annually between 1991 and 1993 during the country’s highly contentious electioneering period when Kenya resumed having competitive multi-party elections.

Things got worse in 2008 following the bloody unrest that accompanied the 2007 election, with agriculture recording -4.98 per cent growth.

The wider economy has also taken a beating in election years. Analysts say Kenya may escape this historic problem, but much will depend on the way the contest plays out particularly whether the opposition unites and the conduct of the politicians.

“Typically, folks become cautious and adopt a ‘wait and see’ attitude (in election years),” says analyst Aly-Khan Satchu. “But as long as the political rhetoric stays below the radar, and I know that is a big ask, then we should be ok.”

While a huge amount of attention will be paid to the presidential election, commentators say greater focus should be dedicated to the 47 gubernatorial polls around the country.

With voters and politicians having realised how powerful the position of a governor is, and the huge resources they command, heated competition for those positions is forecast.

The law which bars party-hopping for candidates going into the primaries as members of a political party has added an extra layer of complexity to the picture.

“If that law is not changed, you can expect we will have the most chaotic, most violent party nominations we have ever witnessed in Kenya,” says Dr Kivuva.

Dr Kivuva said the light regulation of party primaries, the absence of observers and the high stakes involved in regions where capturing the nomination virtually guarantees election would set the stage for extremely hotly contested duels.

Dr Ndemo says the rising role of social media, which in the American election seemed to supplant traditional media, will be an issue to watch going into the 2017 election.

RESTRICT MIGRATION

“Rumours sell better than the truth,” he says. “The problem is that in a context like Kenya’s with deep ethnic divisions, these false stories on social media have the potential of triggering violence.”

Dr Ndemo called for the establishment of a team of “respected moderates” that could be called upon in the event there was a breakdown in law and order following the election.

The former PS in the ministry of Information and Technology said a key thing to watch in 2017 will be the impact of external events such as the rise of right-wing parties in both Europe and America.

He said the adoption of policies that close borders, restrict the migration of labour and students and possibly lead to the expulsion of thousands of immigrants could spell a reduction in remittances and destroy the capacity of traditional democratic beacons to lecture others about human rights and democratisation.

He said it was essential for policymakers to prepare for such outcomes.

Away from politics, 2017 is expected to witness a number of milestones, including the expected commencement of operations for cargo and commuter train services on the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway.

The controversial early oil pilot scheme will also begin and a number of conferences will be hosted in Nairobi, including an innovation convention hosted by The Economist in February.

Corruption will continue to feature in the news, with the Public Accounts Committee expected to publish a hotly anticipated report into the NYS scandal.

Nothing is likely to take the election off the headlines, however, and, as ever in Kenya, whether it will be a peaceful election or one marked by violence, whether the incumbents will stroll to victory or face rejection and whether counties will witness violent or peaceful contests for the position of Governor are all issues that remain up in the air.

©Alleastafrica and Daily Nation

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