Kenya’s 2013 elections: Opportunities for change or opportunities for violence?

Dear Readers,

I’ve been nocturnal of late, crashing on a paper I’m presenting on the post-conflict integration of armed groups into the SPLA at the African Studies Association conference on Saturday. My odd hours may, in part, explain my recollection of the phone call I received this morning from one of my contacts in Kenya. I must’ve mumbled something about Kenya’s upcoming elections – because you know Lesley on Africa thinks about these things in her sleep.

Kenya’s elections are scheduled for 4 March 2013, and they’ll be the first under the new constitution passed in August 2010. These elections are also notable because they are an opportunity to overcome the legacy of the 2007-2008 post-election violence, in spite of the fact that senior politicians (William Ruto and Deputy PM Uhuru Kenyatta) indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their roles in said violence are allowed to run for president. Ruto has even claimed that he can rule Kenya from the Hague. With the new constitution comes decentralization. For the first time, Kenya’s political elite will be able to compete for positions as governors of one of Kenya’s 47 countries, or for positions in the Senate, which will be the upper house in Parliament. New positions equal new opportunities for access to patronage, and perhaps new opportunities for political competition.

Many Kenya watchers have observed with concern the rise in domestic terrorist attacks linked to Kenya’s ongoing military operations in Somalia since last fall; the rise of communal violence in Coast Province – both in Tana River, but also in response to the extrajudicial killing of Sheikh Aboud Rogo;  and the Mombasa Republican Council’s (MRC) threats to disrupt the elections if their grievances go unaddressed. There have been reports that Kenya’s  Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is frustrated over low voter registration rates, and earlier this week, the acting U.S. Ambassador to Kenya expressed his concern about the IEBC’s readiness for the election.

This morning, when asked what they thought about these issues, my contact betrayed their frustration with the slow voter registration process, explaining that some eligible voters are both skeptical of the electoral system as an agent of change and wary of the potential for bloodletting in the months surrounding the elections. That said, from what I recall of the conversation, my colleague was optimistic about the potential for the elections to be transformative in Kenya. But is this individual seeing these developments through rose-tinted lenses because they may have a vested interest in the success of the electoral process? Or are outside observers not giving Kenya enough credit to be able to pull off a credible election free of communal violence?  It may be a little bit of both. I can’t provide a definitive answer for those questions, but I thought they were important to raise as Kenya enters its final stretch towards the elections.

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