Cynically, Kenya goes to polls Voting: The East African nation holds its second multiparty election Monday, but few seem confident that positive change will result.

Sun Journal

December 27, 1997|By Scott Straus | Scott Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BUKHULA, Kenya -- In this lush green farming village in western Kenya, people live without electricity, piped water or phones. Three meals a day are a luxury.

Basic education is increasingly an unaffordable prospect. The village schoolhouse, which parents paid for and built, is too small to shelter all the students, so some classes are taught outdoors. And this year, heavy winds blew away the roof on the nursery school.

But Bukhula has democracy, and Monday its people and the rest of Kenya's electorate will take their concerns to the ballot box in this East African nation's second multiparty election. Voters will choose a president and local and parliamentary representatives from more than 25 political parties and 15 presidential candidates.

The attitudes of many here in Bukhula show why President Daniel arap Moi, who has ruled Kenya since 1978, is likely to be handed a fifth five-year term, and why his ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party, which has been in power since Kenya won independence from Britain in 1963, is likely to continue to dominate the Parliament and local councils.

Villagers here have a long list of demands. They want a long-stalled factory in a nearby town to be built; they want the government to provide free primary-school education, books for classes and doors for classrooms; they want food aid when their crops fail. But after years of empty promises from politicians, few expect the election to bring change.

"The politicians come here and promise to repair the school, to do this and that," says William, a village elder with a warm, wide smile and a stubby gray beard. "We don't believe them. This place is the same as it was at independence."

Still, William and others say they will vote for President Moi and the KANU candidates. They are not influenced, they say, by the shiny coins, worth about 20 cents, that one KANU candidate handed out last week -- a widespread electioneering practice.

Instead, villagers say, they will choose Moi because he is for peace, while the opposition is for violence. Despite the economic backwardness of Bukhula, many say Moi is the only man to keep Kenya stable.

Voters in villages and small towns form the majority of the electorate and the backbone of Moi's support. He is also the favorite of many of Kenya's smaller ethnic groups. So he is expected to be the front-runner Monday, though Western diplomats and Kenyan political analysts doubt that his vote tally will exceed 40 percent.

But 40 percent is more than any other candidate is likely to get. For the second time in five years, the Kenyan opposition failed to agree on a single contender to oppose Moi. It has split into more than two dozen parties, most of which draw their support from only one of Kenya's 42 ethnic groups.

Kenya's first multiparty election after nearly three decades of KANU rule was only five years ago, a response to pressure from international donors and domestic opposition. Despised in many parts of Kenya for his dictatorial style, Moi appeared to be facing his last term. But a splintered opposition allowed him to hold onto power with 36 percent of the vote. This year, the anti-Moi vote is even more diluted.

The opposition is pinning its hopes on a law that requires the winner of the presidential race to receive 25 percent of the vote in five of Kenya's eight provinces. If Moi fails to meet that requirement, he will face the runner-up in a second round. Such an outcome might unify the opposition and oust the president.

Political analysts say the two likely runners-up to Moi are Mwai Kibaki and Charity Ngilu. Kibaki, a former vice president and leader of the Democratic Party of Kenya, comes from the largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, and is expected to win most of its vote.

Ngilu has run an energetic campaign to become Africa's first female president. She is from Kenya's fifth-largest ethnic group, the Kamba, and also appeals to educated and urban voters, who see her as the candidate likely to bring fundamental change.

Either candidate would face problems in a runoff against President Moi.

Many voters resent the Kikuyu dominance that the country's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, brought to Kenya during his 15 years in power. They would be loath to see another Kikuyu, Kibaki, as president. For her part, Ngilu is inexperienced and largely unknown to rural voters.

The winner of Monday's poll will confront an increasingly restive population, saddled with sharply declining living standards, soaring unemployment, endemic government corruption, a deteriorating infrastructure and deepening ethnic divisions that have left five dead and scores wounded since the election campaign began last month. In August and September, more than 50 people were killed and thousands displaced in political and ethnic violence on Kenya's coast.

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