Kenya's opposition leader Raila Odinga faces tough test in election

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Kenya's opposition leader Raila Odinga faces tough test in election

Kenyans will go to the polls on Tuesday in an election that pits the longtime opposition politician Raila Odinga against the country's vice-president William Ruto.

Odinga, 77, a former prime minister, has run a campaign centered around social protection and anti-corruption. He is backed by his former nemesis, the outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta, who had a falling out with Ruto during his last term.

Odinga and Kenyatta put their long political rivalry to rest after a handshake in 2018, in order to signify that they were moving on from a bitterly fought, ethnically divisive election in 2017 in an effort to unify the country.

The handshake was welcomed in some quarters but received with scepticism in others, says Murithi Mutiga, program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group thinktank. He said that some critics saw Kenyatta's efforts to influence his succession in favor of Odinga as a matter of parochial rather than national interest. Kenyatta and Odinga are from the country's founding families and have significant wealth.

Ruto, 55, has had a political career that spanned decades. The live chicken seller turned billionaire has been dogged by corruption allegations for years, though never indicted.

He has positioned himself in the race as an underdog and a class warrior a move that observers say gave him mileage in his efforts to take on the country's most powerful political families.

The populist candidate has a bottom-up economic model that he says would empower low-income communities.

With the country's poor far outnumbering its rich and middle class support along economic lines, the tides could shift in Ruto's favour. Kenya is a highly unequal country. According to an Oxfam report, less than 0.1% of the population owns more than 99% of the country's wealth. More than 60% of the population in Nairobi live in overcrowded informal settlements that are just 5% of the total area of the city.

"Kenya has always been ripe for the kind of class politics Ruto has advanced," says Mutiga. He has had a significant influence on the public discourse around electioneering in Kenya, whether he wins or loses. But ethnic politics is still the centre of the Kenyan elections. For the first time in more than a decade, there is no leading candidate from the Kikuyu community, the largest ethnic group in Kenya and one that has produced the majority of the country's presidents. This has helped to diffuse ethnic tensions in the 2022 elections, according to analysts.

Mutiga said that past elections tended to be quite divisive because they were essentially referendums on perceived Kikuyu elite economic and political domination.

With the bloc's votes up for grabs, competition for influence has been stiff, and both Ruto and Odinga have chosen running mates from the Kikuyu heartlands of south-central Kenya.

The tough economic realities facing Kenyans have pushed campaigning beyond ethnic and personality-driven politics. The cost of living has gone up, along with unemployment rates and public debt, leading to growing criticism of the Kenyatta government.

The Kenyatta endorsement was a mixed blessing for Odinga, says Mutiga, who had forced the latter to run a fairly conservative campaign. Odinga has been accused of softening his criticism of the government since the handshake in 2018.

The elections are high stakes for the political elite but they have only attracted a lot of public interest. Some young voters are even boycotting the elections because of the infference.

There is public exhaustion over the shifting alliances, according to analysts. It has inured the public from the excessive emotional investment they would attach to elections in the past, says Mutiga.

They grew up to the fact that the political elite are divided by very little.