Kenya – President Kenyatta faces new challenges as elections loom

The Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has moved to deal with rising food prices as the campaign ahead of the 2017 general election begins in earnest. Having been accused of “dithering” earlier in the year as the price of unga (maize flour) increased by 500 KSh a month to KSh 4,500 for a 90 kg bag, the government moved to import 29,900 tonnes of Maize in order to reduce prices in early May.

President Kenyatta’s actions reflected growing public dissatisfaction with the rising cost of living and the growing challenge from the political opposition as the August 8 general election draws near. Having enjoyed a big lead in the polls for many months, many commentators felt that the Jubilee Party could secure comfortable victory, especially as the main opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance, appeared to be split on whom to select as its running mate. Along with long-time presidential candidate Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi were said to be determined to emerge as the coalition’s flag bearer.

However, ultimately Odinga managed to pull off a double-win: securing the nomination as NASA presidential candidate and persuading his rivals for the position to back him. In turn, the emergence of a more united opposition has generated much-needed momentum for Odinga, leading to claims that he is once again a viable presidential candidate. One of NASA’s campaign slogans, “10 million strong”, seeks to emphasise this point, referencing the potential support base that Odinga can mobilise if all the communities assumed to be allied to the opposition vote for him – though this is far from a forgone conclusion.

While the most reliable opinion polls suggest that Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party continue to enjoy a healthy lead, the fresh energy within NASA, combined with rising food prices, have worried the Jubilee Alliance. In some of the more recent polls, the confirmation of Odinga’s candidacy has significantly strengthened his performance, and as a result he has moved from the 25/26% a few months ago to around 41% today. Having initially aimed for an overwhelming electoral performance of 60%+ in the presidential poll, Jubilee leaders are now concerned that if Odinga continues to gain ground they may struggle to secure the 50% +1 of the vote required for a first round victory.

Given the excitement within NASA, and the concern within the Jubilee Party, Kenya may be set for a closer and more controversial election than seemed likely a short while ago.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham

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