The race to State House: Kenyans head to the polls

July 2022

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On 9 August 2022, Kenyans will head to the polls to elect a successor to President Uhuru Kenyatta. The contest is unfolding amidst protracted inflation and unemployment in east Africa’s biggest economy. Record high interest rates are threatening to discredit the government’s claims of economic progress. Concurrently, rising commodity prices, compounded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are contributing to higher poverty levels, particularly among Kenya’s large youth population. Meanwhile, continuous accusations of corruption against government officials have generated hopelessness among the electorate.

Amid a deteriorating economy and growing public discontent, the two presidential frontrunners, Raila Odinga, former prime minister, and William Ruto, current deputy president, released their coalitions’ manifestos. The programmes proposed by Odinga’s Azimio La Umoja party and Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance seek to address some of these economic and social issues. Unlike previous elections where ethnicity took centre stage, the current elections offer Kenyans an opportunity to vote based on policy priorities.

Odinga and Ruto would take Kenya down distinctly different paths. Odinga is pro-establishment, and Ruto distinctly anti-establishment. But, despite their differences, there is common ground regarding the issues dominating the campaign landscape. In this insight, we summarise and compare Odinga and Ruto’s key policies as they attempt to win votes with less than two weeks left to the election. 

Odinga or Ruto? Two diverging paths

On the face of it, Deputy President William Ruto is positioning himself as the voice and defender of ordinary Kenyans. This has led to a new chapter of populist politics in Kenya. Ruto has followed common populist discourse by attacking President Kenyatta and the alleged ’deep state’ for creating impediments to his presidential bid. Furthermore, throughout the campaign, Ruto has portrayed himself as a ‘hustler’, often emphasising that he is the son of a ‘nobody’ who succeeded through hard work. To the voter, he wants to be the agent for change, a defender of the poor, and a crusader against corruption.

By contrast, Raila Odinga is relying on his background as an experienced politician and veteran presidential candidate to feed that narrative that he is a ‘safe pair of hands’ for the elite and business community. The dichotomy between the ‘hustlers’, represented by Ruto, and the elite ‘dynasties’, represented by Odinga, has morphed into respective campaign narratives – much to the chagrin of Odinga’s camp.

Economy is the ‘hustlers vs dynasties’ battleground

The state of the economy – ballooning public debt, high interest rates, and rising inflation – is a key issue shaping political debate. Thus, the economic agendas of each candidate are a key focal point in the run-up to elections. The battle between these agendas is framed around the ’hustlers vs dynasties’ narrative.

Ruto’s agenda is rooted in the rejection of the current economic model, which he believes favours elites at the expense of the masses. To appeal to the lowest cadres of society, he is proposing a bottom-up economic model that focuses on reforming investment policies which will promote a labour-intensive sector. Ruto plans to invest in manufacturing, agriculture, as well as micro, small and medium-sized enterprise (MSMEs), like the jua kali, or informal sector, as a means to address unemployment at the bottom of the pyramid. But with less than two weeks to the polls, the country’s second in command is in a bitter war against Odinga, whose ten-point manifesto is viewed as the safer option for Kenyan business.

Odinga’s policies focus on developing local manufacturing, thereby promoting ‘Made in Kenya’ – making him the favourite amongst business-owning elites. Moreover, while recognising the benefits of foreign investment, Odinga has criticised the limits of FDI regulation – foreign investors can easily create monopolies and repatriate large profits. Odinga’s determination to protect and grow Kenyan businesses offers many assurances about the prospects of a potential Odinga administration. But while Odinga is the clear pro-establishment candidate, his investment policies are best described as reformist – his going against the current system. By contrast, Ruto has remained silent on the topic of FDI. This suggests that he will likely maintain the status quo vis a vis the investment climate despite his anti-establishment rhetoric.  

Odinga and Ruto agree on key economic priorities – job creation for the youth population, debt reduction, and lowering the cost of living – but they have different perspectives on how to address them. For example, Odinga stated that he plans to lower the cost of living in his first 100 days in office and promised to give two million economically vulnerable households a monthly GBP 40 (KSH 6,000) stipend. Conversely, Ruto offered to deploy affordable credit lines to underserved communities, with a specific focus on smallholder farmers and MSMEs. Nonetheless, both candidates have consistently stated their intentions to reduce mounting public debt and increase taxes to fund projects. However, neither Odinga nor Ruto have clarified which taxes they plan to raise.

Policies align on endemic corruption

With Kenya ranking highly on the Corruption Perceptions Index – 128 out of 180 – both Odinga and Ruto agree that tackling corruption, a key drain on government revenue, is essential. However, they disagree on the root causes of corruption. Ruto has accused President Kenyatta’s administration of enabling corruption. He claimed that political officials under Kenyatta have benefited from their positions and government tenders at the expense of the public. But his firm stance is weakened by recent controversies within his own camp.

Odinga, on the other hand, stated that he is best situated to fight graft and accused Ruto of being a corrupt individual who is therefore unable to advocate for an earnest corruption policy. Odinga has defended the current administration by stating that the executive office does not have enough power to fight corruption.

They have both proposed reforming procurement practices to prevent the misuse of public funds. In line with Odinga’s statement, Ruto, ironically, recognises that corruption bodies such as the judiciary lack autonomy. He has promised to provide them with more autonomy and financial independence. However, beyond pointing fingers, the candidates have not provided substantial frameworks for tackling what is seen as endemic corruption.

Voter apathy remains

Campaigning began in April but in the past few weeks, the race has become tighter and polling averages have narrowed markedly. The latest polls place Odinga ahead of Ruto by a narrow margin of 3 percent – Odinga stands at 42 percent, with Ruto at 39 percent. However, Kenyans have expressed discontent with both candidates. Among those who say they intend to vote for Ruto or Odinga, few express strong support. Many harbour reservations about their chosen candidate, or state that they are voting to simply thwart the other nominee.

To run the country successfully with the pledges that have been made, the next president must consider how they will fund these programmes. Costs need to be cut, and revenues must be generated – but both require innovative thinking that so far, the candidates have failed to produce. Beyond fighting corruption to bolster public finances, the candidates have provided little information about how they intend to finance their proposals. Whoever wins the August election will be required to navigate USD 72 billion of public debt. On the question of corruption itself, the candidates have not proposed solutions to tackle it beyond saying that they will. Kenyans are looking for accountability. For this to happen, legislative gaps must be rectified, and independent anti-corruption agencies need to be created to investigate and enable the recovery of state money. No future government will be forgiven for failing to tackle corruption.

With polling just two weeks away, the candidates need to inspire hope. In what will be one of the most consequential elections on the African continent this year, many Kenyans are still wondering who they can trust to deliver on their promises.