To the rational political eye, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party have a mountain of a job to do to get re-elected in the August 8 polls. They have to shed the dubious tag of “the most corrupt government in Kenya’s history” that anti-corruption czar John Githongo gave to them. They also have to deal with the biting inflation, and change the perception that the government, at the top levels, is a Kikuyu-Kalenjin affair.
To the discerning political eye familiar with the psychology of the masses, the one that knows politics as an emotional, irrational contest, Jubilee has a real chance to get back to the top seat. They need a political bogeyman akin to the International Criminal Court and nationalist rhetoric that they successfully sold in 2013 to consolidate their strongholds. They need a hip message to capture the youth and give them doses of hope – they did it with the ‘digital government’ and the promise of cash for youth to start business (Uwezo Fund).
However, to some it looks bleak: The numbers in their stronghold, especially after voter registration are not as high as they were ahead of the 2013 polls. They don’t have Charity Ngilu to do the legwork in Ukambani, and the allure of Najib Balala in Coast is waning. There’s no bogeyman—that single message to rally their supporters to back them, yet. The narrative of ‘national unity and peace’ amid complaints of rising cost of living, appear misplaced. Blaming drought for high food prices when less than five years ago, they promised and even launched what was supposed to be a million-acre project in Galana Kulalu for irrigation-based agriculture, won’t wash. Never mind the little issue of who has the monopoly of supplying processed milk in the country.
The good news for Jubilee is that, if past voting patterns are anything to go by, most Kenyans when it comes down to it, won’t care about these issues. They will go with their man, their ethnicity or their (vaguely defined) community interests.
The Jubilee strategists appear to know this, and that is why, while they attempt to reason with the intellectuals and the elite, by launching such things as the delivery portal, they are also spending time at the grassroots making alliances and changing the duopoly narrative, and selling fear and hope to their core supporters.
As far as perception goes, the parading of sitting MPs, governors and MCAs who have defected to Jubilee at every function, always adds a few votes. The rhetoric that these people ran away because the opposition was asking for money to fund campaigns, coming from the President, is believable to his diehard supporters.
There’s also the framing around the impact of the ICC cases to the last General Election. The Jubilee honchos say that unlike the last election, this time, the Jubilee leaders President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, are not suspects of crimes against humanity, and they are in power. If they could win the presidency against Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka, who were Prime Minister and Vice President respectively, with the ICC baggage, then it won’t be hard to beat them again, now that they are “nothing” in government.
If you listen to the pseudo-intellectuals masquerading as political analysts or to the Jubilee politicians, you are likely to hear phrases like ‘the opposition is preparing the country for a nusu-mkate government’. This is a powerful narrative, especially to diehard Jubilee supporters. It rekindles memories of the bloody 2007/08 post-election violence, and for anyone who was affected, they’d prefer to go out and vote, so that there’s a clear winner, and not a situation where the vote is contested, perhaps violently, and a power-sharing agreement has to be cobbled together.
For the President, after failing to lure more parties into the monolith that is Jubilee Party, the strategy has been to seek the endorsement of the small parties. In one weekend alone, he shuttled from meeting to meeting, changing hats as he moved from party to party, in an attempt to show that he was gaining support outside the traditional Jubilee zones. He got the independence party Kanu, the Economic Freedom Party, the Frontier Alliance Party, Narc-Kenya, Kenya Patriotic Party and Maendeleo Chap Chap to all back his re-election campaign.
For the optics, this was great. His message to these parties was that the “government was big enough” to accommodate them, after the elections. It is also the same message that he gave to the losers of the Jubilee primaries, to sit tight within the party, campaign for him, and wait for a reward once he got into office. It is difficult to believe that all these parties just lent their support based on a future promise. Knowing Kenya’s elections and the backroom deal-making that goes into it, there must have been something major that the parties got – usually money, hard cash; or the President’s acquiescence to back the party leaders in their respective electoral quests—to grant their blessings.
For all their flaws, the President and his deputy can still surprise the country and romp into victory because, they have all the advantages that incumbency provides: State largesse; a network of partisan civil servants all over the country – especially the chiefs, assistant chiefs, county commissioners and their assistants. They also have the editorial command over the State broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation to tell the story of their country.
Besides, having the intelligence gathering machinery at their beck and call, and the massive control it has over the country’s telecommunication infrastructure, the government will need to digest the intelligence and craft a messaging masterplan to tell the people what they want to hear; explain their record in a language that is convincing, and simply change the narrative.
For propaganda purposes, the narrative that even the leaders of the National Super Alliance have the baggage of corruption, and that they too have been in government before with nothing much to show for it, may push the Jubilee supporters to go with ‘better the devil you know than the angel you don’t know’. However, the counter-narrative is, if you’ve got instruments of power, and have got evidence of corruption against senior figures in the opposition, why not jail them and eliminate the competition? Only Jubilee would know how to spin this to their advantage.
The wisdom in the continent is that to beat an incumbent, the economy must be really bad and people must be equally mad about the state of their economy, so that they vote on that single issue. The unity of the opposition and the credibility of the electoral are also part of the package that can send an incumbent home the way it happened in Nigeria, Ghana and Gambia.
In Kenya, there are still lingering questions about the capacity of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to carry out a credible vote. It didn’t help matters that the IEBC is contesting a court decision to have presidential results counted, announced and declared at the constituency level.
All said and done, it won’t be easy for NASA to dislodge Jubilee from power.