Uhuru Kenyatta may have won the Kenyan presidential election, but the dust has yet to settle.
He barely made it past the 50 percent mark to avoid a runoff with the current Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The election itself exceeded and fell below expectations. Violence did not follow, as some warned, and the voter turnout was much higher than predicted. What looked like a likely runoff between Odinga and Kenyatta appears to be over.
All of this raises some new questions.
I spoke with Kennedy Opalo to hear about his personal experience voting in the election, why the turnout was higher than expected and what may come next following the final results.
Opalo is a Nairobi native who is presently studying for his Political Science PhD at Stanford University as the Susan Ford Dorsey Fellow. He also writes the popular blog Opalo’s Weblog, a vital resource on issues regarding Kenyan politics. In the run up to the election, Opalo published analysis of the campaigns and opinion polls. Read on for his view of the process and where this is all headed.
What was your experience like in terms of voting? How did people you know feel about the campaign, election, media coverage and vote tally?
I waited for three hours to vote. And this was in a relatively sparsely populated area of Nairobi. I heard stories of people who got in line at 5 AM and did not vote until in the early afternoon.
The campaigns this time were not any different from the past. Real issues took a back burner and were instead replaced by veiled calls for ethnic unity in the respective alliances against unnamed enemies, historical injustices, and straw men. The big media houses did not explicitly take sides but it was evident in the courage which of the two main coalitions were favored by the respective editorial teams.
With 2007 fresh on everyone’s mind the media went overdrive with messages of peace. After voting this was extended to the censoring of anything that was considered inflammatory. While this was commendable, to some extent it went a little too far – especially when the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was experiencing massive problems with the tallying process; the media did not independently verify the results and censored any substantive discussions of what the faults in the electronic system meant for the integrity and eventual outcome of the election.
The failure of the electronic tallying system exposed a serious lapse in the IEBC’s ability to deliver credible elections. Sources close to the commission have admitted that when the system was tested the Friday before the election it failed, yet the commission decided to go live on Monday anyway. I don’t think the system meltdown affected the eventual result – a (Parallel Vote Tabulation) PVT done by Elections Observation Group (ELOG) confirmed IEBC’s findings – but it raised concerns over IEBC’s vulnerability to manipulation.
Polls leading up to the election had Kenyatta leading, but below the 50% threshold needed to win. What happened?
The last polls showed the election close. In the last week or so some polls had Kenyatta up by less than a full percentage point. The very last polls actually showed Odinga ahead by about 2 percentage points. In my estimation I think the pollsters dropped the ball when they gave up on trying to ascertain the potential turnout rates in the different regions of the country. The polls were based on interviews of registered voters as opposed to likely voters. Mr. Kenyatta’s strongholds not only registered at higher rates, they also voted at much higher rates compared to Mr. Odinga’s (88.6% vs. 84%). That made a difference.
Also, as I highlighted on my blog, I think the pollsters did not weight the different regions correctly. Even just based on their numbers you could detect that they were over-estimating Odinga’s support by about 3 percentage points.
A lot seemed to depend on turnout and the numbers ended up being much higher than expected. What accounted for this underestimate?
86% turnout rate was the highest ever in Kenya’s history (not the highest participation rate ever, just highest turnout of the registered voters). I think the biggest factor was the fact that this time round we had county elections that actually mattered. All politics is local. And so when people had the chance to elect county governors, senators, women representatives and county assembly people (on top of the usual president and MP) they showed up in large numbers.
The polarized nature of this election (e.g. of the ICC question) played a minimal role, if any. Remember that in 2007 Kenya was greatly polarized between Odinga’s ODM and Kibaki’s PNU. But average turnout then was almost 20 points lower than this time round.
Odinga is going to challenge the results to force a run off. Does he appear to have a good case?
Only about 10,000 votes pushed Mr. Kenyatta passed 50%. It is not unimaginable that an audit of the results would reveal enough errors to overturn the results and force a runoff. At the same time, however, the PVT by ELOG confirmed the IEBC’s final results. In addition, it is reasonable to expect that will be discrepancies with both Kenyatta’s and Odinga’s numbers. And with Kenyatta’s 7 point win it is unclear if the judges might decide against forcing the country through a runoff that Odinga has little chance of winning.
If he forces the runoff, is there any reason to think that Odinga can win?
A runoff will be a steep climb for Odinga. Turnout was his millstone this time round. And the millstone will only get heavier. With no other people on the ticket his strongholds, which have had historically low turnout rates, will have even lower “usual” turnout. Mr. Kenyatta’s base will revert to the “usual” turnout levels which are still higher than Odinga’s.
Why am I saying this having predicted an Odinga win in a second round? Well, the answer is the Rift Valley. In most of my models I estimated that Odinga would get at least a quarter of the Rift Valley vote. He had veteran Rift Valley politicians on his side, and so in my estimation was likely to push back against the William Ruto tide. This did not materialize. The Rift Valley voted like in lockstep with Mr. Kenyatta’s Central Province. Because of this Mr. Odinga has almost no chance in a second round.
International press reported heavily on the potential for violence. It never really materialized. Is there a sense that things are in the clear?
For the most part things are in the clear. This time round the authorities were prepared against chaos in the urban areas. The media also cooperated with PSAs on peace and harmony. Plus Kenyans were more than eager to get passed the election and continue with their lives.
Then we have the issue of Kenyatta, Ruto and the ICC. Have the candidates given any reason to doubt that they will cooperate with the proceedings?
So far the UhuRuto pair have vowed to “cooperate with international institutions.” They are also on record for having said that if Kenyans elect them then it raises questions about the legitimacy of the ICC process. It is unclear how President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto will differ from candidates Kenyatta and Ruto on this matter. My take is that once in power they will have more leverage vis-à-vis the ICC and the wider international community, and the temptation to renege on a few of their previous commitments will be great. They probably will not completely ignore the court, but they will most likely make its work difficult.
Also, today the court dropped the charges against Kenyatta’s co-accused – the former head of the Civil Service Mr. Francis Muthaura for lack of credible witnesses. Given that Mr. Kenyatta and Muthaura were claimed to have collaborated in organizing revenge attacks today’s move by Prosecutor Bensouda is perhaps an indicator that Kenyatta might just get an acquittal from the court, if the charges are not dismissed before trial.
Ruto’s trial begins in May. Mr. Kenyatta’s in July.
What some of the lessons learned from this election?
A key lesson is that the credibility of elections do not come from how technically sound their organization is but whether there is political goodwill as well. The IEBC’s technical woes don’t appear to have been politically motivated yet we ended up with a disputed poll.
In addition, the election of Kenyatta and Ruto confirmed that, ultimately, the administration of justice – especially with regards to crimes like the ones they are accused of committing – is political and should therefore not be treated as a mere law enforcement problem. Alleged victims of either candidate overwhelming voted for the ticket. This outcome raises important moral questions, at least domestically, about how to deal with the ICC question. It was not lost on Kenyans that this was the first election in a long time in which violence did not erupt among Kikuyu and Kalenjin residents of central Rift Valley.
This originally appeared on The Atlantic.