By Rajiv Golla
BARUT, Kenya (Reuters) – Peter Maritim rolled along Barut’s main street in his home-made wheelchair, shouting out to voters – just one of 13 candidates campaigning for the tiny Kenyan town’s single seat in the county assembly.
The unemployed 42-year-old will compete next week with a pharmacist, a headmaster, a former hotel manager and several farmers, many of them independents or members of small parties who entered politics after the government devolved power and money to counties in 2013.
The reforms, part of a democratic overhaul brought in after 2007’s elections exploded into ethnic violence, have spurred home-grown, small-scale campaigning in the East African economic powerhouse.
Supporters say that’s a timely reaction to long-running allegations of corruption in the way that the big, mainstream parties chose their candidates. Established politicians call it chaos.
Kenyans will elect a president, lawmakers, and local representatives on Aug. 8, with devolution prompting particularly fierce competition for local races.
“I am not going there to look for money. I am going there to give people service,” said Maritim, who is partially paralyzed and gets around in a wheelchair pulled by his brother’s motorbike.
Maritim is promising improved roads, and has tried to inspire voters with the story of his life and struggle for an education, all running on the slogan “disability is not inability”.
The new devolved politics has attracted more than 8,000 independent candidates across Kenya, up from 300 in the last elections.
“This is new territory for us and it’s good for democracy,” said Jessica Musila, the head of Mzalendo, an independent group that monitors parliament.
The big parties’ primary races were beset by problems, she said, and independent lawmakers might be more willing to stand up to corruption since they did not risk party censure.
“GUNS FOR HIRE”
Dennis Onyango, spokesman for the opposition alliance, disagreed.
“We see them (independents) as a threat to the building of strong parties,” he said. “No one knows how they will behave … They could be guns for hire.”
Voters in Barut, near the central Rift Valley town of Nakuru, said all they wanted was a representative to focus on irrigation, better roads and jobs.
But after decades of political maneuvering, they were also keeping their hopes and idealism on hold.
Several said they had already been offered up to 200 shillings (£2) for their vote – a tactic from the old days of big party politics and a tempting proposal in the drought-hit area.
“The person who is going to win is using money, dishing money to people,” said another candidate, primary school director James Yegon. “They are taking advantage of the poor situation of the community.”
Other voters suggested some of the candidates might interested in more than what they could achieve.
Kenyan politicians are famously well-paid, and local representatives get at least $40,000 per year, nearly 40 times the annual average.
“Some are seeing the opportunity for getting big salary so that is why they are contesting,” said farmer James Tongus as he took a break from weeding his crops.
(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Andrew Heavens)