22 Feb

Crackdown on Dissent Puts Kenya’s Democratic Status at Risk

Once considered an island of stability in a neighbourhood bedevilled by conflict and one-party rule, Kenya is mired in a protracted electoral dispute that’s undermining its democratic credentials.

Political tensions have been simmering in the East African nation since opposition leader Raila Odinga boycotted a rerun of a presidential vote in October and rejected the declaration of Uhuru Kenyatta as the winner.

They flared again when Odinga declared himself the so-called people’s president last month, and the authorities cut off TV stations airing the ceremony, initially ignored a court order to restore broadcasts and deported a prominent opposition lawyer.

The dispute has weighed on Kenya’s economy, the region’s largest, with growth slowing to an estimated 4.8 percent last year from 5.8 percent a year earlier.

That may undermine efforts to create jobs for more than a third of the potential workforce who are unemployed.

While the opposition drew criticism for failing to see the electoral process through, the government response has raised concerns about Kenyatta’s commitment to the rule of law.

“Nobody was expecting him to go to such lengths to keep fighting political battles,” said Christopher Dielmann, senior economist at Exotix Capital. “This is not an electoral blip. It calls into question the political and constitutional structure of Kenya.”

The world’s largest shipper of black tea and a regional hub for companies including Alphabet Inc. and Coca-Cola Co., Kenya emerged from one-party rule in 1992, with three presidents chosen in regular — though often-disputed and sometimes violent — elections.

The press is mostly free and the judiciary set an African precedent when it declared the initial August vote void after claims it was rigged.

The Interior Ministry denied there’s been any crackdown on political opponents. The government is “becoming more disciplined and focused on ensuring that discipline is followed,” spokesman Mwenda Njoka said by phone.  He accused the opposition of “using extra-legal means to sabotage the government.”

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