Kenya on a knife edge
Raila Odinga’s strategy to force a postponement of the presidential election appears to have backfired. But with no legal certainty about the October 26 election, trouble may be brewing
The Kenyan game of chess is still on, and Raila Odinga has no intention of shying away from the big moves he has been making since the beginning of the country’s election process.
After successfully petitioning Kenya’s supreme court to annul the August presidential election result, the opposition leader announced last week that he was dropping out of the rerun.
Odinga in no way intended to abandon the race. Rather, he had hoped to force a cancellation of the vote and a reshuffle of the officials at the electoral commission before fresh elections could be held.
Yet the 72-year-old politician may have unwittingly checkmated himself out of the race.
Odinga’s decision to pull out was made in protest against the Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which he has repeatedly accused of bias and of being unable to conduct free and fair elections.
In its recent petition to the supreme court, Odinga’s coalition presented evidence of irregularities such as forged electoral forms.
Last week he said: "We have come to the conclusion that there is no intention from the IEBC to make sure that the irregularities and illegalities witnessed before do not happen again."
But the legal basis for his strategy is uncertain at best. Because only two candidates — Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta — were set to compete in the rerun, Odinga’s opposition coalition had hoped his withdrawal would mean the election would be delayed. This would allow time for reform at the IEBC and for other parties to nominate additional candidates to widen the presidential race.
But as Odinga made his move, another process — which he had not foreseen — added a twist. A day after his withdrawal, the high court ruled that Ekuru Aukot, a minor candidate, could be included on the ballot. The IEBC later announced that seven candidates would take part in the election and that ballot printing would begin.
Some experts are contesting the legality of the latest changes, arguing that candidates cannot simply be added as and when the electoral commission wants.
"Everyone is interpreting the law in different ways. There is no clear angle. At this point we should be going back to the supreme court to get a clear interpretation," says Dennis Owino, a Kenyan commentator on politics and governance.
Observers are divided on Odinga’s decision. While some say he should have abided by the court’s initial ruling, following the legal process he himself started, others think his withdrawal is consistent with his principles and the reason he petitioned the court in the first place.
"The IEBC was not showing any sign of reforming itself. It’s not just a matter of having an election. Accountability is a must; going through the motions for the sake of it is useless," says Owino. "At this point, I don’t think free and fair elections can take place as scheduled on October 26."
Yet there seems to be little alternative. The supreme court had ordered that a rerun take place within 60 days of its September 1 ruling.
"After November 1, Kenyatta will cease to be the president. We will be entering uncharted territory, if we haven’t already," says Owino.
Naturally, Kenyatta has been pushing to hold the elections on October 26 as planned. Last weekend he began touring 17 counties for one last attempt at campaigning and signed the additional budget for the rerun.
Should the vote go ahead without Odinga, his supporters will try to disrupt it and the potential for violence will likely be higher than it was during the August election. In the days since Odinga’s withdrawal, demonstrators have taken to the streets — despite a ban — to demand a postponement of the vote. They have met a brutal crackdown from the police and several people have been killed.
This isn’t a game of chess, however, and Odinga may still be able to retract his move after seeing how his strategy has unravelled in the past week.
Following his announcement, Odinga refused to sign the Kenyan election withdrawal form and, as a result, his name is still on the list of candidates. The IEBC has said it will include his name on the ballot paper, and therein might lie the denouement.
Whatever happens next, something has to give.