The people of Kenya go to the polls next week to select their next President as well as members of the national assembly and local-level officials. In a country vital to U.S. security and economic interests in East Africa, preparations for the elections have been rocky and tense. Many analysts have drawn parallels to past elections to predict whether peace or violence will prevail. But assessing the 2017 elections will require more than a snapshot review of election week or comparisons with past violence.

voting in Kenya
Photo Courtesy of Flickr/Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung/Susanne Raukamp

Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party once again faces longtime rival Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (Nasa). Their last matchup in 2013 was relatively calm, but research by the U.S. Institute of Peace found that the reasons largely came down to the lingering fear of a repeat of 2007. The recent memory of widespread conflict had reduced the appeal of violence.

There are at least two reasons why this year’s elections may avoid the mass violence that Kenya experienced following its 2007 election. First, the scale of that violence was a historic anomaly. Studies indicate that violence affects between 19 percent and 25 percent of elections in Africa, with only a fraction reaching the level that Kenya experienced a decade ago.

Secondly, Kenyans approved a new constitution in 2010 that increased minority rights and significantly decentralized power and resources from the presidency into the hands of county governors and assembly members. There has been progress in implementing relevant reforms, in creating an independent judiciary and increasing the resources that counties receive to govern their affairs.                                   

However, staying below the 2007 death toll should not lead to complacency. In USIP’s research on the 2013 elections, Kenyans described the country as a “ticking time-bomb” and predicted violence over new sources of conflict. As foreshadowed, the new constitution exacerbated local competition and injected long-standing ethnic and economic divisions at that level, a possible harbinger of violence in county-level races.

Rocky From the Start

Preparations for this year’s election have been rocky from the start. Protests against the election commission turned violent last summer, killing five people and injuring several dozen, and eventually forcing out the commissioners. The Inspector-General of Police reported two deaths and 23 acts of violence around the tense nomination process. Earlier this week, an election official was brutally murdered. USIP research identified various forms of threats and violence, including the use of hate speech, forced displacement and widespread gender-based violence in 36 of Kenya’s 47 counties.

The elections are hotly contested, with the credibility of the electoral process at the center of contention. The election commission continues to be dogged by questions about the integrity of voter rolls, the increased reliance on technology and—most recently—the procurement of ballot papers. The Kenyan National Police Service will deploy 180,000 police officers to staff the elections, up from 95,000 in 2013, but polls show ordinary citizens have little trust in the force. The police recently released an analysis of potential “hotspots”, but many Kenyans are suspicious about how that information will be used, considering the record of excessive force in elections and during counterterrorism operations.

The elections are hotly contested, with the credibility of the electoral process at the center of contention.

In the coming days, Kenya’s citizens will look to their leaders for a cue on how to respond to the election results. It is incumbent upon the candidates to avoid playing the ethnic card, to exercise restraint, and to live up to their commitments to avoid violence. Diplomats in Washington, London and Brussels should coordinate with African leaders from the region and convey strong public and private messages discouraging provocative behavior.

We know from prior USIP research that effective prevention of election-related violence goes beyond crisis management, and requires steady progress towards broad legitimacy and citizens’ trust in their democratic institutions. Many of the dysfunctions and frustrations that fueled violence in past elections remain unaddressed, including persistent land disputes and the ethnic divisiveness of Kenyan politics. Evaluations of prevention should go beyond counting bodies or numbers of trainings for security forces, and review progress in resolving these causes of violence. Peaceful elections require incremental progress in the level of confidence among Kenyans that the election commission conducted the polls fairly, that police protected impartially and effectively, and that newly elected leaders are committed to addressing the needs of all Kenyans equally and continue implementing urgent reforms.

Rather than looking back, we should be looking ahead; laying the groundwork for truly peaceful elections in 2022 cannot start soon enough.

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