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Kenyans go to the polls today to elect a president for the first time since their last violently disputed general election five years ago. Some 1300 people died in the fighting that broke out in December 2007 and January 2008, as supporters of rival candidates clashed on ethnic lines, and began to burn down houses and villages. This time two of the candidates, whose supporters meted out violence  to each other last time, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the independence leader and sometime resident of Pimlico’s Alderney Street Jomo Kenyatta, and William Ruto, have formed an alliance.

Their main opponent is current Prime Minister Raila Odinga (himself the son Jomo Kenyatta’s deputy after independence). Kenyatta and Ruto have been indicted by the International Criminal Court for their part in the violence last time.  Moreover, the result looks close. Kenyatta and Ruto’s Jubilee Alliance alliance and Odinga’s appear to be neck and neck. Suspicion of rigging is rife and rumours that parties are training militias abound.

The signs don’t look good.

Yet in Kenya voting and political allegiance has been driven by ethnic ties for a long time. During the last election, it was often heard said that “a Luo [one of the groups] will be elected president of the United States before he’s elected president here.” This turned out to be right: Barack Obama’s father came, it turned out, from the Luo “tribe,” which makes up a little over 10 per cent of the population.  No single group is overwhelmingly large (though Kikuyus are, shall we say, well represented in the security forces), and so alliances have to be struck between their leaders.


Furthermore, since 2008, the country has developed new institutions more suited to a fragmented country. New county governors are up for election, answerable to local voters, not the central administration. The presidency is also weaker than it used to be, and parliament stronger.  The aim is to make the general election less of a winner-take-all contest. Those who lose nationally will probably win somewhere else, giving them fewer incentives to disrupt the new system or turn violent.

Kenya’s democracy is evolving. The Westminster-style government it inherited from colonial times, with its strong executive branch and power concentrated in the capital, proved easy for strongmen to take over and allowed corruption to flourish. The new system, with parliamentary checks on the executive, independent judges and a form of federalism, looks a bit more like the American.  It might just work better.

The president needs more than 50 per cent of the vote to win; this probably won’t happen in the first round, so the time between now and the run-off in April is crucial.  Will political leaders call of calm, or allege fraud? If they bring their supporters out on the street will they do so peacefully or will they incite violence?

Shortly after the last elections in Kenya, I had the good fortune to be part of a Westminster Foundation for Democracy training mission for young African politicians. Though most of the delegates at things like these are earnest and serious, there’s usually one attention-seeking and inevitably charismatic loudmouth martinet. Anybody who’s spent any time as a political activist will know the type I mean. Sure enough, this training conference provided one. During the session on the rule of law, he began to declaim “…and we will take up arms!” An extremely impressive woman from Kenya interrupted him. “Democracy” she insisted, meant that politicians had to resolve their differences peacefully. She spoke of how close Kenya had come to civil war and how she hoped it never would again.

During the period before the run-off the Kenya’s political leaders will face crucial decisions: should we contest the results? If so by what methods? Do we bring our supporters out? What do we tell them to do? Is it safe to stand down the militias we have been building up, or do we need them to protect our supporters?

If they help to keep things calm they have the chance to cement the country’s new institutions (imperfect compromises though they may think they are), if not, they could tear them apart. There will be tense days ahead.

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