Parties in Kenya Scramble As First Free Elections Near

FOLLOWING the dissolution of Kenya's parliament last week, a divided and handicapped opposition prepares to challenge a determined incumbent in Kenya's first multiparty presidential election.

A controversial statue in a downtown park takes on new relevance in showing the tribal nature of this presidential race. The lower part of the statue depicts Mount Kenya, the sacred mountain of the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe. Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was a Kikuyu. Jutting out from the top of the mountain is the easily recognized hand of President Daniel arap Moi, holding a mace, a symbol of the office. Mr. Moi, Kenyatta's successor, belongs to the minority Kalenjin.

Out of power for 14 years, the Kikuyus want figuratively to turn the statue upside down and are trying to build intertribal alliances. President Moi, for his part, is determined to hold on to power. He has warned minority tribes to stay with him or risk political isolation in his next term.

By dissolving parliament, Moi has begun the final ballot countdown. Under the Constitution, elections for parliament and president must be held by March. Most analysts here say Moi could call for the poll to be held as soon as late November.

Almost a year has passed since Moi caved in to Western and domestic pressures and lifted the ban on opposition parties. But these new groups still seem unprepared for the ballot, according to several Kenyan and international analysts.

Lee Kanyare, spokesman for the Democratic Party (DP), blames the government for the opposition's woes. He says Moi officials have denied permits for some opposition rallies and branch offices, and has blocked access to the state-run television and radio stations. Mr. Kanyare predicts a "showdown" between Moi and the opposition, possibly in the form of "mass demonstrations" against such government restrictions.

A. R. Kapila, a nonpartisan Kenyan lawyer, offers a different perspective. He says the opposition is in "chaos" because of "tribalism and personal ambition." Consequently, Moi is "very strong," he says.

Many undecided Kenyans, such as Florence Shiundu, an administrative secretary in a private charitable organization, are disillusioned by both the government and the opposition.

"The so-called opposition parties are not being given a chance. The ruling party is monopolizing the field," she says. "But the [opposition] is just there ... to make themselves rich."

As the campaign heats up, Moi is stumping throughout the country. The opposition parties, formed primarily along tribal lines, are trying to broaden their ethnic bases. And deputies from the newly dissolved single-party parliament have started to abandon the ruling Kenya African National Unity (KANU).

THE Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, FORD, the original opposition party, has split into two parties.

One wing, FORD-Kenya, derives its support from both Kikuyus and Luos, Kenya's second largest tribe. Its presidential candidate is Oginga Odinga, an elderly Luo and former vice president under Kenyatta. Some prominent young Kikuyus, such as Paul Muite, have lined up behind him.

The other wing, FORD-Asili (Swahili for "original"), is headed by Kikuyu Kenneth Matiba. Last week, some prominent KANU politicians from northeastern Kenya, representing various minority tribes, defected to his party.

Abdi Ali Hersi, a former assistant minister for agriculture under Moi and one of those who left KANU, says he abandoned the president because of the lack of help to combat drought and security threats from armed Somali bandits.

The third main party, DP, is led by Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu and former vice president under Moi. Mr. Kibaki also is trying to build coalitions with non-Kikuyus.

Amid concerns over an election process that was marred this spring by police crackdowns and tribal fighting, Western diplomats warn that the elections must be marked by fairness, especially if Moi wins.

"If the elections are blatantly rigged and perceived by the people to not be fair, there's going to be trouble," says Smith Hempstone, the United States ambassador to Kenya, indicating the possibility of further physical violence, such as riots.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.