Kenya election: Voters head to polls in tight election


NAIROBI — Kenyans are heading to the polls Tuesday in a hotly contested presidential election pitting two of the countries most prominent politicians against each other.

Former prime minister Raila Odinga, 77, who is making his fifth bid for the country’s highest office, says he wants to root out corruption, funnel money to Kenya’s poorest residents and implement reforms to address the skyrocketing prices of food and fuel in this East African nation. The left-leaning veteran opposition leader has the backing of term-limited President Uhuru Kenyatta, a former adversary with whom he formed an alliance in 2018.

Deputy President William Ruto, 55, argues that he will better represent Kenya’s poor with a “bottom-up” economic model targeted toward small businesses and addressing unemployment — he often describes how he became successful only after working as a chicken farmer in his youth. Ruto, who publicly fell out with Kenyatta during their second term in government, has tried to frame the election as a competition between “hustlers” like himself and “dynasties” like those of the Kenyattas and Odingas.

Kenya’s Raila Odinga and William Ruto are in a tight race ahead of the presidential election on Aug. 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

Analysts predict that the election could be one of the closest in recent history. A runoff vote would be triggered if neither candidate reaches a 50 percent majority — which could depend on the success of a third candidate, George Wajackoyah, whose platform is built around legalizing medicinal marijuana. While some of Wajackoyah’s ideas are seen as outlandish — including exporting hyena testicles — the reggae-loving professor has won passionate fans.

The winner of Tuesday’s election will have to address the country’s massive debt, soaring inflation, a drought in the north that has left millions hungry, and increasing youth unemployment. Many voters are disenchanted, unsure whether either Odinga or Ruto will bring change.

“Politicians are all the same,” said Mark Otieno, 27, who was attending a Ruto rally Saturday in Nairobi. He said he has been unemployed for four years despite having a college degree. “These people are first politicians, people after their own interests.”

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The election will be closely watched inside Kenya and abroad, including in Washington. Kenya has been an important counterterrorism ally of the United States and a source of stability in the region. The country has a long history of election-related turmoil, with post-election violence in 2008 leaving more than 1,000 dead and 600,000 displaced. The most recent election, which pitted Odinga against Kenyatta in 2017, was marred by street riots and a prolonged period of turbulence after a botched vote. Odinga challenged the results in the country’s Supreme Court, and the judges ordered a rerun. Odinga also lost the second vote.

This year, both Odinga and Ruto have publicly raised concerns with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, the body charged with overseeing the election, citing issues including technical preparedness and the disappearance of voters from the registry. But both have also said they will accept the election results.

“If I lose fairly, I will be the first to concede defeat,” Odinga said in an interview at his mansion in Kisumu, in western Kenya. “But if it is not fair, then I will follow the normal channels to address the issues.”

In recent days, both tickets have filled stadiums with energized supporters. In Kisumu, Odinga’s hometown, his fans held a massive gavel to symbolize the justice they believe Odinga and his running mate, Martha Karua, will bring. Karua would be the first woman to serve as Kenya’s deputy president.

Standing in the sea of orange, the color of Odinga’s party, Daniel Liech, 68, said the former prime minister’s moment has arrived, after years of struggle that included serving as a political prisoner in the 1980s. That history is important, said Liech, adding: “We want to support him this last time.”

At a rally for Ruto in Nairobi on Saturday, fans danced to hits including his campaign anthem, “Sipangwingwi,” and waved signs with the deputy president’s face on them. Some wore yellow shirts that said “Freedom is coming.” Kefa Simiyu Wanyonyi, 33, who is unemployed, said he hoped that under Ruto — whom he sees as the best advocate for the youth and the poor — he would get a job.

“We have hustled so long,” he said, “and now we have someone who says that he can see us, that he can see our struggles, that he will help us.”

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