‘It’s an illusion of choice’: why young Kenyans are boycotting elections

A growing number of young people between the ages of 18 and 35 say they do not plan to vote in Kenya’s presidential elections next week.

About 40% of the 22 million people registered to vote in Tuesday’s election are between the ages of 18 and 35. Those under 35 represent 75% of the country’s population.

Civil society groups said they encountered particular resistance to registration during engagement campaigns from newly eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 25. said Loise Mwakamba, of the parliamentary watchdog Mzalendo Trust.

Like many previous elections, next week’s poll is expected to be a close race. Two of the presidential candidates, longtime opposition leader Raila Odinga and Vice President William Ruto, have held senior positions in government: Odinga as prime minister between 2008 and 2013, and Ruto in government outgoing.

Their long political careers have solidified their influence across the country, but have also worked against them among voters who are critical of their record and see them as likely to maintain the status quo.

Public confidence in Kenya’s electoral institution stands at just 26%, according to a report by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission. The last elections of 2017 were annulled by the Kenyan courts. Uhuru Kenyatta won the replay, which Odinga refused to take part in and called on his supporters to boycott.

Ruzuna Akoth, 33, who studies social justice and governance, points to this boycott to explain the youth opt-out. “When Raila did it, it was understood that staying away from the ballot box was a tactic to settle the issues,” she said.

But those who have spoken publicly about their decision to hand over the polls have faced a public backlash. “The response was a bit vitriolic,” said Mumbi Kanyogo, 26, a communications consultant. “There’s a refusal to understand why people don’t vote, and a condescending idea that if you don’t vote it’s because you’re not informed, you don’t care about politics or you away from the situation.”

Boxes of ballot papers stacked in a warehouse in Nairobi ready to be transported to polling stations across the country, August 1, 2022. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

She said the goal was not to marginalize or replace the role of government in public services, but to build stronger, more politically aware communities that can push for change. “The solution lies in mass political power.”

Commentators note the entrenched beliefs around voting. “We live in a country where civic participation is reduced to voting. The exercise of the vote is currently very extractive, where politicians only engage the population when they wish [them] vote,” said Caroline Mose, a cultural theorist. “One of the statements that those who don’t vote try to make is that civic participation needs to go beyond that.”

Irene Asuwa, 26, a social scientist, agrees. Voter engagement this campaign season had been weak and passive, she said. “The message around the election is like ‘go vote and go home – and vote peacefully! “”She has no intention of voting.

“People say young people are apathetic and disengaged – but a lot of young people I know are really into politics and have just chosen to reinvent how politics can work in this country,” said Maureen Kasuku, 30, an organizer community.

Kasuku and others who have stepped down are exploring other ways to remain politically involved, such as building labor movements for better working conditions. She believes that Kenya’s notoriously expensive election campaigns prevent many good candidates from running for office, limiting voter choice to a select few. “It’s an illusion of choice,” she said. “We have one of the most expensive elections in the world and what exactly do Kenyans get out of it?”

Lawmakers last year rejected a decision by the electorate to cap presidential campaign spending at 4.4bn shillings (£30m) and other political seats, including governorships, of senate and parliamentarians, between 21 and 123 million shillings. According to a report on electoral costs, many politicians go to an election hoping to reap financial or social benefits.

“The ruling class has its own interests,” Kasuku said. “They’re not going to manufacture our consent.”

“There’s a condescending idea that if you don’t vote it’s because you’re not informed,” said 26-year-old Mumbi Kanyogo. Photograph: Brian Inganga/AP

Others who won’t vote have been discouraged by scandals, from allegations of fake degrees to bribery, that have implicated presidential and gubernatorial candidates.

“We cannot continue to elect crooks and corrupt leaders and expect holy behavior,” said Bonface Witaba, 39, a writer and researcher, who does not support either of the two presidential frontrunners.

Witaba said the candidates’ ethnicity allowed them to retain power: “This culture of sycophancy – of standing up for ‘our tribal kingpins’ even if they are embroiled in corruption – will remain our greatest loss.”

But Mose believes there has been a change since post-election violence in 2007, which left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead. “We have a large group of young people who refuse to be drawn into the ethnic politics that used to define Kenya,” she said. “It is understood that ethnic identity can be used politically in very violent and negative ways, so a number of people revert to their ethnic identity as a cultural identity, but not a political one.”

However, political analysts say while there could be some change in the city, it is not spreading to more rural areas and is unlikely to have an effect on voting patterns. “The fact is that Kenyan politics is still very ethnic,” said analyst Mark Bichachi, adding that this was evident in the choice of vice-presidential candidates. The two main presidential candidates chose their MPs from the Mount Kenya region – an influential electoral bloc.

But Bichachi thinks the youth vote could make a difference. “If the 18-25 age group were to vote, it could definitely swing an election.”

In the days before polling stations open, civil society groups continue to encourage young people to vote. “Power does not just sit in the presidency,” Mwakamba said. “Other elective roles like members of parliament and county assemblies play a vital role on behalf of the citizens.”

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