This will be the 6th presidential election for Kenya, since the end of the one party state in 1991. The electorate will also be deciding on a new parliament. The voting results will have a major impact not just domestically, but throughout the region.
Any political unrest in Kenya, will further destabilize an entire geographic area, already facing major problems.
In neighboring Somalia, a separatist group continues to attack the newly installed government.
In nearby Burundi, a government initiated crackdown, has led to ongoing political upheaval and the death of hundreds of people, as well as the displacement of hundreds of thousands more.
The East African Community (EAC), which was established in support of greater economic integration among member nations, will face increasing disruption, if there is an electoral backlash in Kenya.
The inland EAC countries of Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda will take a hit economically if there is any upheaval, since they collectively rely on Kenya’s strategic port of Mombasa.
Kenya with a population of 48 million and a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of $70.5 billion USD (United States dollar) is the dominant power in the region. Yet, 47% of the populace remains below the poverty line.
The country has a long tradition of dealing with political violence. It has occurred during the previous elections of 1992, 1997 and most notably in 2007. This was when, Odinga was challenging the then incumbent President Mwai Kibaki.
Most Kenyans vote on tribal lines, with politicians remaining in power by delivering economic rewards to those who can deliver voters en masse.
Electoral polls and early results in the 2007 election, indicated a triumph for Odinga over President Kibaki. During the next few days, that electoral advantage quickly narrowed. Later in a closed door meeting, the Electoral Commission announced that Kibaki the winner. The supposed margin of victory, was less than 250,000 votes.
The proclamation initiated widespread protest across the country, as Odinga supporters considered the election results illegitimate. These early demonstrations, soon led to violent protests, that were the worst since the country gained independence in 1964.
Before the conflagration was over, 1,600 people had been killed and 600,000 other citizens, had been displaced from their homes.
The present electoral contest is between President Uhuru Kenyatta the head of the Jubilee party, who came to power in 2013 and his main challenger in the last election, Raila Odinga.
If Kenyatta is successful in winning a second time, by law it will be his final term in office. It has already been determined, that President Kenyatta, is the richest man in the nation at this time. He originates from the Kikuyu, which is the largest tribe within the country.
There are 19.6 million registered voters, who will need to decide if they will support the current President who at 55, is the son of Kenya’s first president or his chief rival. More than half of the registered voters, are under the age of 35. It is clearly a battle for the youth vote.
President Kenyatta is promising to create over a million new jobs inside the country. He has also stated that he would like to reduce the cost of living, for the average Kenyan. Due to a drought, the cost of food has dramatically increased.
There has been rapid change during his first term in office, beginning in 2013 . The electrification of the country and access to the internet have spread quickly. A new Chinese built railway opened this past May, connecting the coast to Nairobi.
Businessman Raila Odinga at 72, is a former Prime Minister and is the son of Kenya’s first vice-president. He remains in control of the ODM party and is from the Luos tribe. He has pledged if elected, to fight the widespread corruption, that permeates throughout the country. Due to his age, and the lack of previous electoral success, it is most likely his last chance for the presidency.
The two political giants differ on a number of important policy issues. Some of these will have major implications, affecting cooperation and security throughout the entire region.
Odinga opposes the present involvement of Kenya in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Kenya’s Defense Forces (KDF) are playing a major role in the peacekeeping operations there. He has often called for a withdrawal, of all Kenyan forces from the effort.
This is in itself an opposite view his government held, back in 2013 when he was Prime Minister. There was widespread support for sending the original 3,600 men, that have since helped control a large swath of Somalian land. This territory encompasses the western and southwestern border area with Kenya.
The KDF deployment is playing a significant role, in the regional effort to dismantle and defeat the terrorist group al-Shabab.
The AMISOM involvement has become a major election issue. Currently the plans are to start withdrawing troops in October 2018, that will eventually lead to a complete exit by 2020.
Many in the government believe that it is far too soon, to contemplate such moves. The Somali National Army to date, seems incapable of regaining control of the country at large.
President Kenyatta in contrast to his political opponent, is actually calling for even greater military deployments by neighboring countries. He fully supports the plan for bringing in an additional 28,000 troops, to pacify al-Shabab, in the south central parts of Somalia in Hiiraan and Jubaland.
An Odinga electoral victory, may well result in a regional diplomatic crisis. He supposedly supports full independence, for the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland. It has created a backlash with Somalia, which has refused to accept this loss of their territory.
If Odinga would move forward in recognizing the self declared nation, Kenya would be the first country to take this action. In addition, Somalia would undoubtedly break ties with Kenya.
There are also fears within the African Union, that if independence for Somaliland is allowed to move forward, it will set up a chain reaction of other regions, taking similar moves throughout Africa.
On the other hand, some analysts believe an Odinga administration, would ultimately further promote the objectives of the EAC integration efforts.
For example,unlike President Kenyatta, Odinga and the President of Tanzania, have a close personal relationship. The current situation between Kenya and Tanzania, is escalating into a virtual trade war. The protectionist policies of the latter, have seriously disrupted trade between the two countries.
Recent developments have further soured the state of affairs, between President Kenyatta and Magufuli, the President of Tanzania.
In an effort to tap down the growing feud, an agreement was reached two weeks ago. It was to lift a ban on cigarettes, dairy products, milk, and wheat flour. Just days later, Magufuli blocked 20 Kenyan companies, from exporting goods to Tanzania. This included Brookside Dairies, which President Kenyatta has a financial interest in.
Further complicating the diplomatic situation with Tanzania, is the effort on the part of President Magufuli, to raise the visibility of the nation on the much larger world stage. In order to achieve this, the Tanzanian government has taken numerous steps with other countries, that has worked to the disadvantage of the region as a whole.
The main concern inside Kenya, is the low confidence that the electorate has in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. The judiciary is looking far more partisan, as the race between the two candidates narrows.
Adding to the uncertainty, is the knowledge that no sitting president, has ever lost a re-election effort.
Worse yet, most opinion polls now put the two candidates, within the margin of error. The problem lies with supporters of both nominees. There is a feeling on both sides, that the only way their candidate loses, is if the votes end up being tampered with. This is a dangerous situation for the country to be in.
Odinga has even stated, that the only way Kenyatta can win, is by rigging the election, a charge the current President denies.
To win the election outright, either candidate must have 50% of the vote, plus one. They must also receive at least 25% of the votes, in half of the 47 counties, to prevent a second round of voting.
If no candidate can achieve that, there will be a runoff, the first in Kenyan history.