The State of the Presidential Race in Kenya

Continuing our series of election reports, we are pleased to welcome the following pre-election report from Stanford University political scientist Ken Opalo, who is blogging about the Kenyan elections here.  Previous pre-election reports on the forthcoming Kenyan elections can be found here and here.


On March 4, 2013 Kenyans will go to the polls to elect their 4th president. Incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, is term-limited and will not be on the ballot. The contest will be between two main political coalitions, The Jubilee Alliance and The Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD). Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Raila Odinga head the two alliances, respectively.

Most Kenyans vote along ethnic lines and the main political alliances, though claiming national outlooks, are at the core amalgamations of different regional (read ethnic) parties. The Jubilee Alliance is formed around Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic kingpins while CORD brings together the Luo, Kamba and a section of the Luhya communities.

In an interesting twist of history, the presidential race will be a re-run of the political battles of the mid-1960s. Then, the fathers of the two leading candidates – President Jomo Kenyatta and his deputy Jaramogi Odinga – acrimoniously fell out, heralding the start of the sour political relationship that has existed between Kikuyus and Luos for the better part of Kenya’s post-independence history.

Looking beyond political ethnicity, the key issues around this election will be the implementation of the new constitution (which devolves government and guarantees revenue sharing among the devolved units); land redistribution; security (Kenya faces serious security challenges from both domestic armed militias and international terror groups affiliated with the al-Shabab in Somalia); and the charges against Mr. Kenyatta and his running mate at the International Criminal Court (ICC)

On the issues, Odinga, who went to school in former East Germany, can be described as being centre-left (he self-describes as a social democrat). Mr. Kenyatta, recently rated by Forbes as Kenya’s wealthiest man, is centre-right.

This will be first general election since the enactment of a new constitution in 2010. The new constitution mandates that the winning presidential candidate garner a majority of the total votes cast (at least 50% +1) and at least 25% of votes in half of the country’s 47 counties. This might explain the emergence of two main alliances since none of the regional parties is big enough to win on its own. With the deadly ethnic clashes of 2007-08 fresh on their minds, the framers of the constitution look to have succeeded in their goal of incentivizing cross-ethnic political coalitions.

In addition to the presidential election, Kenyans will vote in 5 other contests – those for Senators (for each county), Members of Parliament (290), County Governors (47), County Assembly Representatives and County Women’s Representatives.

Below I give a summary of the state of the presidential race with little over two weeks left before the election.

(1) The Presidential Debate:

On February 11th Kenyans witnessed, for the first time ever, a live presidential debate. I must say I was surprised by how well this went. The moderators, at least in the first half of the debate, had very pointed hard-hitting questions – especially on negative ethnicity and the ICC charges against one of the leading presidential candidates.

The top two candidates, Mr. Raila Odinga and Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta, were taken to task about the apparent ethnic arithmetic behind their campaign strategies and the perceived animosity between their respective ethnic groups, the Luo and Kikuyu. Both flatly denied the charges. But it nonetheless provided a moment of open discussion of negative ethnicity, which remains as the key organizing principle of Kenyan politics (with regular disastrous consequences like happened in 2007-08 when about 1133 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in post-election violence).

Mr. Kenyatta was grilled on how he planned to govern from The Hague while on trial at the ICC; or whether it was legally or ethically tenable for him to be running in the first place. Mr. Odinga did not miss the moment and chimed in by stating that it would be logistically challenging to run a government via Skype from The Hague. Many of those on stage – with the exception of Martha Karua and Abduba Dida – concurred that the trials should be held in Kenya and that Uhuru should be allowed to run (On February 15th Kenya’s high court ruled that Uhuru and Ruto can run for office despite the charges at the ICC).

In the grand scheme of things the presidential debate did not change the nature of the race much. Although polling after the debate showed that Mr. Kenyatta won a plurality of those who claimed to be undecided prior to the debate, at this time undecideds are so few that it did not matter. What the debate did was contribute to the  gradual change in Kenya’s political culture that has taken place over the better part of the last decade. Seeing leaders being grilled on stage shattered a few myths about politicians’ omnipotence and omniscience.

The next debate will be held on February 25th 2013 and will cover, among other things, the explosive issue of land ownership. Mr. Kenyatta’s family is the biggest landowner in Kenya – owning land the size of Nyanza province, which is about 3.12 million acres (approx. 4870 square miles or about half the size of Vermont). Mr. Odinga has insisted on the stump that he will revisit the issue of land ownership if elected president.

So who won the debate?

The simple answer is Mr. Kenyatta.

On negative ethnicity he shared the blame with Mr. Odinga. Mr. Odinga, as the Prime Minister, was often questioned, and himself answered questions like he was the only one on stage currently in government – Kenyatta and Mudavadi are his deputies, and Kenyatta was at one time Finance Minister. As a result he took a lot of flak for the failures of the current government.

Ironically, Mr. Kenyatta’s best moment in the debate was on the topic of the ICC charges against him and his running mate Mr. William Ruto (Back in 2007 they were on opposing political camps and allegedly financed rival ethnic militias in the Rift Valley Province). Because of the sovereignty overtones (Kenyans can be “tribal”, but are also nationalist) in admitting that Kenya could not handle the cases, many on stage, including Odinga, said that Mr. Kenyatta should be allowed to run and that the trials should be brought back to Nairobi.

One of the biggest obstacles to Kenyatta’s candidacy has been the ICC question – indeed he almost quit the race over the issue. Donors have given barely veiled threats of sanctions. Many Kenyans thought (or hoped) that the courts would bar him. But the way the ICC issue played out in the debate reduced its significance as a wedge issue, and may influence a few undecideds. I get the sense that many left the debate with an excuse to vote for Kenyatta despite the ICC charges.

(2) The Numbers:

The numbers have not changed much since my last analysis on my blog (, save for the fact that the national surveys show an apparent convergence of Mr. Kenyatta’s and Mr. Odinga’s polls numbers (see below).

In the presidential debate Mr. Odinga complained that it smirked of ethnic dog whistling to try and predict the outcome of the election based on ethnic blocs (The combined ethnic blocs of Kenyatta and Ruto make up about 43% of Kenyans). His complaint exposed his biggest fear. His party did a poor job of mobilizing voters to register and was left trailing Mr. Kenyatta’s strongholds, where in some instances voter registration exceeded the projected targets of the EMB, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

While the quality of punditry and predictions of the outcome of the race has been wanting so far (the talking heads on TV often merely use raw voter registration numbers to predict outcomes) I don’t see anything wrong with trying to predict the outcome based on polling data.

In essence the outcome of this election will not only hinge on how many people registered where (most Kenyans vote along ethnic lines, and ethnic groups are geographically concentrated) but also on how many of them actually turn up to vote. As I have argued before, this will mainly be a turnout election. Mr. Kenyatta leads by between 650,000 – 740,000 votes based on my turnout models. But Mr. Odinga can seriously dent this lead by simply matching Mr. Kenyatta’s stronghold turnout rates. If he does that and has a good day in Western region (home region of the third candidate, Musalia Mudavadi) on March 4th he will win in round one. Otherwise the election is most likely headed for a runoff, after Kenyatta wins the first round.

Realizing his predicament, Mr. Odinga this week launched a countrywide get out the vote drive.

The latest opinion poll (Friday 15th Feb) show a dead heat between Odinga and Kenyatta at 46% and 43% respectively. Such close numbers, coupled with Mr. Kenyatta’s head-start in voter registration and historically relatively higher turnout rates in his strongholds, do not bode well for Mr. Odinga’s chances.

(3) On the (international) Consequences of a Uhuru Victory:

In the last two weeks the diplomatic community in Nairobi have had a mini freak-out after coming to the realization that Mr. Kenyatta has a good chance to be Kenya’s 4th president. Many embassies insisted that they are neutral, but some also warned that the outcome would have consequences.  Barack Obama, the US President, even made a youtube video urging Kenyans to vote peacefully. France bluntly stated that they would only have essential contact with a Uhuru government if he wins.

Their freak-out betrays the knowledge that there is little they can do either before or after the election. Kenya gets about 5% of its development budget from donors; the rest comes mainly from taxes.  The reality is that Nairobi can tell them (donors) to take a hike. Plus there’s China, which sees Kenya as part of its African economic pentagon – the KEANS (Kenya, Egypt, Angola, Nigeria, and South Africa). In addition Somalia, South Sudan and other conflict areas in the wider region need to be taken care of by a big international community based in Nairobi. The country is the diplomatic hub of the region, and indeed the continent. Nairobi houses the biggest US embassy in Africa and UNEP headquarters, the only UN office of its kind in the global south. In short, Western leverage is limited both before and after the election. Any post-election sanctions against a possible Kenyatta administration (over the ICC case) would most likely cause divisions in the West, and so fail.

In any case, the ICC case against Uhuru and Ruto appears to be crumbling. The prosecution significantly altered the charges, leading to a request yesterday for more time from the defense teams. The case may be delayed until July, well after the elections in Kenya are over and done. Or it may even be taken back to the pre-trial chamber and dismissed.

All things considered, I would not wish to be in Mr. Odinga’s or his strategists’ shoes right now.


6 Responses to The State of the Presidential Race in Kenya

  1. Atiziano February 17, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

    The election requires candidates to win in 5 of the 7 provinces and thereby any poll has to include voters of the Kikuyu and Luo who are majority’s in the 5 provinces

  2. Chaz February 17, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

    “The new constitution mandates that the winning presidential candidate garner a majority of the total votes cast (at least 50% +1) and at least 25% of votes in half of the country’s 47 counties.”

    Isn’t it possible for no candidate to meet that standard? What happens then?

    • Jessica February 19, 2013 at 5:04 am #

      If no one meets that standard in the first round, the top two candidates will proceed to a run-off.

      • Chaz February 20, 2013 at 4:36 am #

        Thanks for the info. Seems a bit silly to have the 25% requirement if they’re just going to drop it in the runoff.

  3. om February 24, 2013 at 12:16 am #

    Statistical model is good but the analysis falls short and appears to acknowledge a political limitation by assuming simple numbers rule the day. Kenya’s problems are real and citizenry are aware of the root causes of the problems. Relations between kenya and the west is not just donor vs beneficiary there is intelligence sharing, security, academic exchange etc. You have to travel through places like Europe to get to most western destinations.

  4. Babu March 13, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    Sanctions from the west do not entail only budgetary support. It involves trade, tourism, Multilateral institutional lending etc. Kenya would suffer because despite the thinking that China and the East is there, The East contribution to Social programs cannot be compared to what the west has invested. Practically all the drugs for management of HIV/AIDS are from Western donors, investments in infrastructure, telecommunications, and Social programs cannot just be negligible as you point out. I don’t think the West will run just yet. Things may get complicated if Uhuru pulls a Al Bashir and fails to cooperate with ICC. I wouldn’t want Kenya to be Zimbabwe or Sudan