Killer Election

By Heaton, Laura | Newsweek, March 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Killer Election


Heaton, Laura, Newsweek


Byline: Laura Heaton

Kenyans are charged up, armed--and ready to vote.

Green and blue strobe lights cut through a smoke-filled room in the YMCA office building turned music-video recording studio in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi in February. Standing under a Kenyan flag painted on the ceiling, Juliani, possibly Kenya's most popular hip-hop star, belts out the lyrics to his newest single, "Voters vs. Vultures," an energizing song that hurls insults at the country's current political class and urges Kenyans to "vote wisely."

The music video was released just weeks before Kenya's highly anticipated March 4 election and was produced to capture frustration with out-of-touch politicians who "didn't shed blood [but] are the ones who led," as Juliani sings. The lyrics aren't just an artistic metaphor. Five years ago, vicious ethnic fighting--stoked by politicians and gangs loyal to them, and made more violent by the brutal response from Kenyan police--over the disputed presidential race left an estimated 1,300 people dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and four prominent Kenyan leaders facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity.

Despite those charges, two of the men indicted by the ICC are now running on a joint ticket for president and deputy president in a close race that they very well could win. Presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta is one of the country's richest men and a son of Kenya's first president; his running mate, William Ruto, was a high-school teacher who rose to become a government minister.

Kenyatta and Ruto are running against Prime Minister Raila Odinga, heir of another Kenyan political dynasty; his father served as the country's first vice president while Uhuru Kenyatta's father, Jomo Kenyatta, was president. A longtime opposition leader at 68 years old, Odinga has vied for the presidency twice before, and the upcoming election is widely seen as his last shot at the State House. He took up his current post as part of a power-sharing agreement to end the violence in the aftermath of the contested 2007 election. Recent polls predict a close race, with the two frontrunners' tickets each garnering 44 percent of the vote, according to the international market-research firm Ipsos Synovate. (Six other candidates are expected to share the remaining votes.) If no candidate receives more than half of the votes in the first round, the runoff between the top two contenders is slated to take place in early April--coinciding with the scheduled start of Kenyatta's and Ruto's trials in The Hague, though the ICC's chief prosecutor indicated as this piece went to press that she would consider shifting the trials to August.

"The ICC is part and parcel of the Kenyan political process right now," says Kwendo Opanga, a political commentator and columnist for Kenya's Sunday Nation newspaper. "The current general election is about the last general election."

Many Kenyans will vote for Odinga as a vote against electing leaders indicted by the ICC, says Gabrielle Lynch, Kenya specialist and associate professor at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. "Lots of people feel that Raila hasn't done a particularly impressive job as prime minister and that he's not really the young reformist that he used to be, and that he's not completely clean of corruption. But many people who are pro-reform and for change will vote for him as a negative vote against Uhuru and Ruto, because they know that he's the most likely person to beat them," Lynch says.

But some voters say they are weighing their concern about having a president indicted by the ICC with fear of electing a leader who seems apt to follow the long tradition in Kenyan politics of awarding positions of power, influence, and financial gain to members of one's own ethnic community--the concept of "It's our turn to eat." As the poll date nears, fear of "retaliation" from an Odinga presidency is a common refrain among voters who say they support Kenyatta, even begrudgingly.

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