On August 9 Kenyans will vote for their fifth president. It will be the country’s seventh general election since the resumption of multiparty electoral democracy 30 years ago.
This year will see the lowest number of presidential candidates on the ballot since 1992. The country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has cleared four contenders. They are Deputy President William Ruto of the Kenya Kwanza coalition, former prime minister Raila Odinga of the Azimio la Umoja coalition, law professor George Wajackoyah of the Roots Party and lawyer David Waihiga of the Agano Party.
While Ruto and Odinga are the frontrunners, Wajackoyah and Waihiga are fringe presidential aspirants. Generally, fringe candidates are aspirants whose chances of passing a frontrunner are slim to none.
They play a significant role, however, in testing democratic spaces for maturity. They also accrue personal benefits, such as grooming for future political careers.
A look at fringe candidacy in established democracies shows that marginal aspirants are more significant than we might think. In the United States, for example, the 2020 elections had Jo Jorgensen (Libertarian Party) and Howie Hawkins (Green Party) as fringe candidates. The 2016 elections had four such contenders: Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party), Jill Stein (Green Party), Evan McMullin (Independent) and Darrell Castle (Constitution Party).
While Kenya’s 2022 general election will have just two fringe candidates, previous elections have had between three (in 2002) and 13 (in 1997).
Why they matter
Kenya’s 2010 constitution changed the outcome for presidential candidates after an election. Under the old constitution, the president had to be a member of parliament. This meant presidential candidates also vied for a parliamentary seat, raising their chances of being in government even if they failed to clinch the top seat.
The 2010 constitution changed this requirement. Presidential candidates cannot vie for any other seat, drastically reducing their political options should they not get elected.
Despite this change, fringe candidates continue to throw their hats in the ring. This means there are other motivations.
Fringe candidates serve four main functions. First, their presence in an election offers proof of a stable or steadying democracy. Political systems, institutions and politicians learn to accommodate alternative candidates as equal players with the right to contest elections.
Second, fringe candidates give the media a break from “horserace journalism”. This is the kind of reporting that focuses on powerful, influential and popular political players.
Third, fringe candidacy can serve as a political “nursery” for politicians. They gain name recognition from media coverage of presidential aspirants, and showcase their political ambitions through campaigns, interviews and debates. This builds their political profile.
They also go down in history as having contested the presidency, regardless of their performance in the elections.
For presidential candidate Wajackoyah, a peculiar manifesto that includes popularising marijuana and snake farming to offset Kenya’s public debt seems to be working for him. His campaign speeches are often a trending social media topic in Kenya and his manifesto launch got prime news coverage.
There was similar excitement among voters in 2013 and 2017 when Mohammed Abduba Dida appeared in presidential debates with unusual ideas on how to better govern Kenya.
Fringe candidates’ often atypical ideologies and beliefs give democracies a break from regular political themes.
Fourth, fringe candidates can front a third force that unseats a powerful regime. This played out in Kenya’s 2002 elections when fringe candidates from the 1992 and 1997 polls formed a coalition that nominated Mwai Kibaki as their flagbearer. He won the election against Daniel Moi’s preferred successor, Uhuru Kenyatta – who is Kenya’s current president.
There are aspirants who hope to one day replicate the “luck” Kibaki and Kenyatta had, and are happy enough to seek the presidency as fringe candidates.
Waihiga’s presidential campaign seeks to infuse a moralist voice into Kenyan politics. He has hit out at Wajackoyah’s plan to legalise marijuana and accused him of “insulting church leaders”. He is running a campaign that revolves around easing taxes, lowering the prices of basic foods and bringing back to Kenya money illegally obtained and stashed abroad.
Saboteurs and avengers?
Not all fringe candidates play a positive role in elections. Some have been accused of using their candidacy to split votes and give a frontrunner the advantage. This can be viewed as a well-orchestrated political move.
For instance, in 2007, former vice-president Kalonzo Musyoka’s bid for the presidency split the 2.4 million votes in the country’s eastern region. At the time, Kenya had just over 14 million registered voters. The eastern region is a significant constituency in elections and has traditionally supported Odinga’s presidential candidacy.
When Musyoka set out on his own, he ended up with 8.91 per cent of the total votes cast. Odinga obtained 44.07 per cent of the votes against a victorious Kibaki’s 46.42%. Had Odinga and Kalonzo remained united, the presidential poll results might have been different.
Another former vice-president, Musalia Mudavadi, fell out with Odinga in 2013 and decided to launch his own campaign. Mudavadi’s presidential candidacy split the votes in the western region – which includes vote-rich counties like Vihiga, Kakamega and Bungoma.
Western Kenya is Mudavadi’s ethnic base and has often supported Odinga. In the 2013 election, however, Kenyatta won with 50.51% of the votes against Odinga’s 43.7 per cent. Mudavadi came in third with just under 4 per cent of the vote.
In developed and developing democracies, fringe candidates have a constitutional right to contest. Since their presence can often be a sign of a maturing democracy, the media and allied cultural institutions need to give them attention.
Additionally, it’s possible that those who vote for these candidates might not have exercised their right of suffrage had they not had the option on the ballot. For this reason, fringe contenders can help entrench a culture of voting and counteract voter apathy.