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The Change Election In Kenya

A weekend New York Times Magazine piece gave us a portrait of a local electoral battle in Kenya, a nation that headed to the polls today to elect a president. It’s worth reading for insight into what promises to be one of the closest elections in Kenyan history.

There, incumbent Mwai Kibaki is in legitimate danger of losing control of the nation to surging opposition leader Raila Odinga. The momentous nature of this day is clear—instances in which an African premier has been unseated in the independent era can literally be counted on one hand—but the close race in Kenya, coupled with the now-threatened January 8 competition in Pakistan, also shines light on the things America’s fraught but largely superficial nominating contest takes for granted.

Major similarities exist—the personality cult that dominates competitions both local and national thrives in Kenya, and an increasingly vibrant media provides a thorough raking-over of the candidates and their positions—but seemingly antidemocratic realities are par for the course in east Africa.

Lest this elicit a “duh”, note that earlier this month Kibaki rejected an invitation from his challenger to participate in a televised debate—something unthinkable in an America where cage-fighting among primary opponents is necessary and expected. Though a New Hampshire road-flare standoff riveted Americans for a few hours early this month, real political violence is no bombshell in Kenya—sixteen people were killed and thousands displaced due to shootings during party primaries in November. And the stakes are not so low. As the Times piece makes clear, Islamic terrorism is never far from the minds of Nairobi denizens.

Ironically, the most meaningful electoral difference may be the influence of money—even more of a determinant in resource-poor Kenya than in America’s bloated, gotta-be-a-millionaire political process. In ways that will seem totally foreign to American voters, the turnout and eventual count in Kenya will hinge on tribal affiliation, with the Kikuyu ethnic group backing president Kibaki and the Luos behind Raila. (“Southern strategy” aside, no similarly racialized constituencies exist in America.) But the Kenyan rift goes deeper than the cash gap between, say, Mitt Romney and John McCain. This ethnic divide is a proxy for class differences—the professionals and elites of the Kikuyu base versus the poor and disenfranchised Raila has targeted in his campaign.

It’s fascinating that the identity crisis in Barack Obama’s paternal homeland coincides with his own unifying closing arguments in Iowa. Far more than our convenient and comfortable political narratives suggest, the Kenyan vote will actually come down to the well-oiled machine versus the popular/ist insurgent. As democracy worldwide labors along under inhospitable conditions, Americans should offer thanks for the smoother road, and the privilege of rising above race, class and religion-based political warfare.

--Dayo Olopade

(Photo: courtesy Getty Images)