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Odinga steps up demands on election reform after Ruto blinks

President Ruto has agreed to bipartisan talks about the electoral commission but rejects all the other opposition demands

After winning a commitment by President William Ruto to debate reform of the electoral commission in parliament, opposition leader Raila Odinga is demanding that the talks should include parties from outside parliament and the agenda should include an audit of August 2022 elections.

Unless Ruto's government complies with this, Odinga says his party will resume the mass protests. 'We shall go back to the people at the earliest sign of a lack of seriousness by the other side,' he added.

President Ruto was the first to blink in the standoff with veteran oppositionist Odinga who had threatened to continue the bi-weekly protests in major towns that have already hit the economy and business sentiment.

Ruto insists there will be no repeat of the 'handshake' deal of March 2018 between Odinga and his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta that brought Odinga into government after the disputed 2017 elections.

On his campaign last year, Ruto argued there should be a functioning opposition scrutinising the government if a multi-party system is going to work effectively. Yet in power, Ruto's lieutenants have moved into opposition strongholds on the coast and in Nyanza province to co-opt local politicians into joining the ruling United Democratic Alliance (UDA).

That was beginning to eat into Odinga's popular base and may have prompted his launching of mass protests against Ruto last month.

So far Odinga is ahead on points. By offering parliamentary talks on the reform of the electoral commission, Ruto has acceded to the first of Odinga's four demands.

The other three may prove much trickier for both sides. Odinga wants government action on the cost of living, reinstating the four suspended electoral commissioners who disputed Ruto's victory in the 2022 elections, and opening the electoral commission's servers to audit the polls.

For Ruto any further interrogation of the 2022 election is a red line, especially if it involves access to the commission's technology and the companies it used. Yet by offering to discuss the reconstitution of the electoral commission Ruto has shown he is willing to bend but he has also proved that Odinga's street tactics are effective (Dispatches, 21/3/23, Raila takes to the streets).

Diplomats and international organisations applauded Ruto's offer of talks but that takes the government only so far. Odinga's demands envisage much more cooperation between the government and Odinga's Azimio la Umoja coalition.

Days before Ruto's concession, the United States, the British and other western embassies had urged dialogue with Odinga. But they made it clear that they regard last August's elections as legitimate. Earlier, the African Union had earlier taken a similar position.

Even if Ruto and Odinga can agree on the principle of talks in parliament, it's unclear how bipartisanship on recruiting electoral commissioners will work in practice.

And the negotiations are playing out against a volatile backdrop. Many Kenyans are appalled at the looting of a farm belonging to the Kenyatta family, with press photographs showing looters walking out of the farm carrying livestock. The security guards and police detail at the property are reported to have been paid off to allow the looting to take place in broad daylight.

The looting is widely viewed as having been orchestrated by allies of Ruto as a warning to Kenyatta, who continues to dispute the legitimacy of the election.  Such attacks on opposition-owned property and the violent rhetoric used by Ruto's allies in government and parliament are heating up national politics and risks escalating further.

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