One is the self-proclaimed champion of the “hustler nation.” The other is a veteran leftist running for high office for the fifth time. Both are products of Kenya’s calcified and corruption-ridden political system, but claim they can transform it, if elected president.
the closely contested race to lead the pioneering East African nation of Kenya is reaching its climax on Tuesday as 22 million registered voters face a choice between William Ruto, 55, the country’s current vice president, and Raila Odinga, a veteran politician from 77 years old who is making his fifth candidacy for the presidency.
Days before the vote, the contest was exciting, a testament to the maturity of Kenya’s democracy which, despite its faults, contrasts with other African countries where once-high democratic hopes have given way to spurious votes and military coups in recent years.
To its Western allies, that’s one reason why Kenya, a burgeoning tech hub, a major counterterrorism partner and an anchor of stability in a region wracked by famine and conflict, is more important than ever.
Still, Kenyan elections have a history of being messy and unpredictable affairs. Previous polls were marred by widespread violence, lengthy court dramas and, in 2017, the murder of a top election official just days before the election.
So far this year, the election season has been largely quiet, even with some hopeful signs of change. The corrosive ethnic politics that have dictated Kenyan politics for decades are showing signs of softening. Fewer people fled their homes before the vote, fearing houses would be set on fire, than before.
Results are expected to start coming in later in the week, along with, almost inevitably, claims of rigging by the loser, so eager Kenyans will be holding their breath until then.
The two main candidates are distinguished by both style and substance. Mr. Ruto is the self-styled champion of Kenya’s “con men”: the masses of frustrated young people, many of them poor, struggling to make it in life. “Every Hustle Matters” reads the slogan on his bling-out campaign vehicle.
Mr. Ruto is determined and ambitious, although he also has a reputation for cruelty. A decade ago, he faced trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of orchestrating violence after the 2007 elections, in which more than 1,200 people were killed. the case collapsed in 2016 after the Kenyan government withdrew its cooperation and key witnesses recanted their testimony.
Mr. Odinga, the scion of a historic Kenyan political dynasty, offers familiarity (he has been vying for high office since the 1990s) as well as a sense of historical vindication. His numerous failures to win the presidency have deepened a sense of resentment among his fellow Luo, Kenya’s fourth largest ethnic group, for never having held the highest position in the country.
He was widely praised for the choice of his running mate, Martha Karua, a lawyer with a record of principled activism who, if elected, would be Kenya’s first female vice president.
However, Odinga’s success in this election is mainly due to a political alliance, known as “the handshake”, which he achieved in 2018 with President Uhuru Kenyatta.
That deal ensured that Kenyatta, from the dominant Kikuyu ethnic group, backed Odinga and in turn made him an enemy of Kenyatta’s deputy, Ruto, who spent much of the campaign criticizing his former boss.
The winning candidate needs 50 percent of the votes, plus one more. But a third candidate, George Wajackoyah, who is campaigning on a marijuana legalization platform and, more unusually, the sale to China of hyena testicleswhich is said to have medicinal value, could be a spoiler.
If Wajackoyah can convert his support base, estimated at 3 percent in one poll, into votes, he could deny the major candidates a majority and push the vote into a second round.