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Vote tests Kenya's democracy

Thursday's tight presidential race is a rarity in Africa, where one-party rule is the norm.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 27, 2007


As Kenyans go to the polls Thursday, there will be more at stake than just choosing their next leader. They may be setting new standards for democracy on the continent.

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Just five years after voting out a strong-armed president who had reigned for 24 years, Kenyans now face a tight race between two equally strong parties, a rarity in Africa where one-party states are the norm.

With one poll showing populist opposition leader Raila Odinga just three points ahead of the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, however, Kenyan observers warn that the losing party is almost certain to contest the results.

"This is a test of multiparty democracy," says Njeri Kabeberi, executive director of the Center for Multiparty Democracy in Nairobi. No vote in Kenya is completely free of violence, but this election "is between two good guys saying, 'I can lead,' " he says. "The battle will be over where my interests as a Kenyan will be better represented."

For most Kenyan voters, elections are less about issues and policies and more about personalities and ethnic communities. And in Kibaki and Odinga, both former allies in the fight to topple Kenyan strongman President Daniel Arap Moi, Kenyans have two very different men to choose from.

The technocrat vs. the populist

President Kibaki served as a minister in Mr. Moi's government before setting up his own separate opposition party. In power, Kibaki has projected himself as pro-business, rolling out a series of reforms that revived industries both in urban areas and in rural farming communities. But critics also point out that Kibaki failed to reign in corruption, and to rewrite the Moi-era constitution that gives broad powers to the president.

While Kibaki is seen as a cool technocrat who delegates power to his ministers, his rival Odinga is seen as a hands-on charismatic populist who leads from the front, and revs up crowds with speeches targeted at the nation's younger, poorer majority.

A mechanical engineer by training, a leftist by temperament (he named his son Fidel Castro), and a parliamentarian representing Kenya's largest slum, Odinga has run his campaign promising to create jobs and spread the benefits of Kenya's economic boom to the vast majority who still haven't felt its effects.

The two candidates belong to ethnic communities that have long been rivals. Kibaki is an ethnic Kikuyu from Central Province, Kikuyus being Kenya's business and landowning class. Odinga is a Luo from Nyanza province, and Luos are famed as warriors. Their success or failure depends on how they can spread their appeal to the other 40-some ethnic groups.

Polls continue to show Raila Odinga, a former minister in Kibaki's government, slightly ahead of President Kibaki. The closest of these polls, conducted by the Kenyan polling firm Consumer Insight, shows Odinga with 43 percent of respondents, Kibaki with 42 percent.

At a final press conference before the election, Odinga predicted victory, but pointed to allegations of ballot-stuffing by pro-Kibaki government officials. "It now seems that this passionately democratic exercise is a complete and twisted sham," said Odinga. "Such blatant rigging is playing with fire. Kenyans will not stand for this."

Ronald Ngeny, a one-time parliamentary candidate for Odinga's party, took this warning a step farther. "If the government tries to rig, it will be revolution. It will be a long struggle."

Tempers erupted into violence on Tuesday, after supporters of Mr. Odinga and Mr. Kibaki clashed in Nairobi's downtown. The government has deployed 30,000 officers to protect polling stations and keep the peace.