Mosaab Elshami / AP
NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya’s chief electoral officer has declared Deputy President William Ruto the winner of the presidential election over five-time challenger Raila Odinga, a triumph for a man who shook up politics by appealing to struggling Kenyans on economic terms rather than traditional ethnic ones.
Ruto won 50.49% of the vote, the chairman said, while Odinga got 48.85%.
But chaos erupted just before the declaration, when the deputy chairman of the electoral commission and three other commission members told reporters that they could not support the “opaque nature” of the final phase of the process.
“We cannot take responsibility for the result that will be announced,” said vice-chairman Juliana Cerrera, without elaborating. Police enforced calm at the declaration site amid shouting and fighting before electoral commission chairman Wafula Chebukati announced the official results – and said two commission members still there were injured.
The sudden split in the commission came minutes after Odinga’s top agent said they could not verify the results and accused “electoral irregularities” without providing details or evidence. Odinga did not come to the place of the declaration.
Kenyans are now waiting to see if Odinga will go to court again to challenge the results of Tuesday’s peaceful election in a country crucial to regional stability. It is likely to be a last-ditch effort for the 77-year-old long-time opposition figure, this time backed by former rival and outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta, who fell out with his deputy Ruto years ago.
“ANY results announced by IEBC chairman Wafuka Chebukati are ILLEGAL because he did not have the quorum of commissioners to hold a plenary meeting and take such a weighty decision. The ongoing process at Bomas is now ILLEGAL,” tweeted Odinga’s spokesperson Makau Mutua.
Candidates and other persons have seven days to file a complaint against the election results. The Supreme Court will have 14 days to issue a decision.
Ruta, 55, despite being rejected by the president, fought back and told voters the election was between “frauds” like him from humble origins and the “dynasties” of Kenyatta and Odinga, whose fathers were Kenya’s first president and vice president. Odinga has sought the presidency for a quarter of a century.
In his speech, Ruto thanked Odinga and highlighted an election that focused on issues rather than ethnic divisions, saying “thanks go to the millions of Kenyans who refused to be wrapped in tribal cocoons”. He added that the people who acted against his campaign “have nothing to fear… There is no room for revenge.”
Turnout in those elections fell to 65%, reflecting Kenyans’ fatigue with seeing the same old politicians on the ballot and frustration with poor economic conditions in East Africa’s economic heartland. At the top, Kenyan politics is often defined not so much by ideological platforms as by alliances that create a path to power and the wealth that can come with it.
Some Kenyans also appeared wary after the Supreme Court earlier this year blocked Kenyatta’s attempt to make sweeping constitutional changes to, among other things, create the prime minister post that some feared Kenyatta would take if Odinga won .
Odinga, known for years in detention during the struggle for multi-party democracy decades ago and for supporting Kenya’s groundbreaking 2010 constitution, is now seen by many Kenyans as part of the establishment for supporting proposed constitutional changes.
Meanwhile, Ruta presents himself as a cheeky outsider and shows his childhood as a chicken trader, despite his current position and wealth. Both men’s careers were significantly marked by former president Daniel arap Moi, who mentored the young Ruto and ran the one-party system that Odinga fought against.
The Electoral Commission increased its transparency in this election by virtually inviting Kenyans to do their own counting by posting online more than 46,000 result sheets from across the country. For the first time, the public could follow the course of the election, with the sometimes reticent local media and even individuals gathering and sharing findings to check the official process.
Such tallies showed Ruto ahead, but the race remained so close that jubilant supporters of each candidate gathered in their strongholds hours before the announcement in anticipation of victory. In some areas of the capital, Nairobi, and other cities, the streets were deserted and businesses closed.
As Kenyans waited nearly a week for official results, Odinga and Ruta called for peace, echoing calls from police, civil society groups and religious leaders in a country where past elections have been marred by political violence.
After the 2007 vote, more than 1,000 people were killed after Odinga claimed victory had been stolen from him in an election many saw as rigged. The International Criminal Court charged Ruto, then an Odinga ally, with crimes against humanity for his role in the violence, but the case was dropped amid accusations of witness intimidation.
After the 2017 election results were overturned by a high court for irregularities, a first in Africa, Odinga boycotted a new vote in which Kenyatta won and declared himself the “people’s president” in a ceremony that led to accusations of treason. After the riots in which dozens of people were killed, Odinga and Kenyatta publicly shook hands to restore calm.
Kenyans want this peace to continue. “Leaders are there to come and go,” Richard Osiola, a resident of Nyanza Western Region, said over the weekend, dismissing the need to fight because rival candidates eventually make peace. “I must stay alive and see how you rule, bad or good, and then I will have another chance to choose another leader.”
Both candidates vowed to help Kenya’s poor. Odinga has promised government cash handouts to families below the poverty line, while Ruto has promised public spending of more than $1 billion a year to boost job opportunities in a country where more than a third of young Kenyans are unemployed.
Social networks were not blocked during the elections. Kenya is seen as a relatively democratic and stable country in the region, where longtime leaders such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan President Paul Kagame are often accused of overseeing a vote that is not free and fair.