Comparative Politics

Post Election Report: Kenyan Elections 2013

Mar 11 '13

Continuing our series of election reports, we are pleased to welcome the following post-election report from Stanford University political scientist Ken Opalo, who is blogging about the Kenyan elections here.  His pre-election report is available here.  Our first post-election report (from the day after the election) can be found here.


On March 4th Kenyans went to the polls to elect the country’s 4th president, among other officials. Most polling stations opened on time at 6 AM. Some, however, opened late due to late arrival of voting materials or the failure of the biometric voter registration (BVR) kits that were used to identify voters before they cast their ballots.

It was the first time that Kenya had implemented an electronic voter register, the previous manual register having had hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ghost voters. It was also the first election following the enactment of a new constitution in 2010, which doubled the number of elective contests in the general election. With the botched 2007 general election still fresh on everyone’s mind, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was keen on guarding the credibility of the process.

The actual voting went relatively well. Besides a night attack on the eve of the election by a separatist group in the former Coast Province, there were no major incidents. Most polling stations closed at 5 PM and those that opened late were allowed to extend voting until 10 PM.

The tallying exercise began on Monday night. Priority was given to the presidential race, with the electoral commission promising final results within 48 hours. But this was not to be. A few hours into the tallying process the dedicated virtual private network (VPN) used to relay the results from the 33,000 polling stations to the national tallying centre in Nairobi crashed. More than 36 hours after polls closed, only 42% of the votes cast had been counted.

Two days after the polls closed it emerged that the electronic tallying system had a software bug that kept multiplying the number of rejected ballots by a factor of eight. At one point rejected ballots amounted to 6% of the total votes cast, generating nervousness among election watchers over the credibility and legitimacy of the eventual outcome. A correction of the error saw the number of rejected ballots drop to just under 1% of the total votes cast.

Late on the second day of counting the IEBC abandoned the electronic tallying system and resorted to manual verification and tallying of the presidential election results from the country’s 290 constituencies (the other elections mostly reported results on time). This process only ended in the wee hours of Saturday morning. In the end Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta emerged victorious, defeating veteran politician Raila Odinga by 6.2 to 5.3 million votes (50.07% to 43.6%) thus avoiding a runoff. At almost 86%, the election experienced the highest ever turnout rate of registered voters in Kenya’s history.

The results were nowhere near what the polls had predicted a week to the election. Most opinion polls showed the race as close, with Mr. Odinga leading by two percentage points. My own pre-election analysis several weeks before the election warned against belief in the national polls as they were over-estimating Mr. Odinga’s support. The outcome of the election showed that even I had underestimated the extent to which the national polls had over-estimated Mr. Odinga’s popularity. The polls’ biggest error was to base their results on interviews of registered voters, as opposed to likely voters. As I argued then, Mr. Kenyatta’s supporters were more likely to register higher turnout rates that Mr. Odinga’s.

In reality Mr. Kenyatta won the election long before voting day. His strongholds, relatively wealthier and more urban, had higher voter registration rates than Mr. Odinga’s (85.4% vs. 69.7%). This coupled by a higher turnout rates on polling day (88.6% vs. 84%) pretty much assured Mr. Kenyatta’s election as Kenya’s 4th president.

The final presidential results showed some interesting effects of electoral institutions on voter behavior. The new constitution required the winning candidate to garner 50% plus one of the votes cast and 25% in at least half of the 47 counties. It also required presidential candidates to run on a joint ticket with their running mates. As a result four broad inter-ethnic coalitions formed. In the end, however, voters cast their ballots as if only two candidates were running for president. Despite Kenyans’ propensity to vote along ethnic lines, Mr. Odinga handily beat the third candidate Mr. Musalia Mudavadi in his “ethnic homeland” of Western Kenya. This was a departure form previous elections (in which the winner needed a simple plurality) when voters stuck to their ethnic kingpins if they ran for president (examples include Odinga, Kibaki, Matiba, Nyachae, and Kalonzo who split the opposition votes in 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007).

Perhaps overreacting to the inflammatory coverage that fueled the violence in 2007, this time round media coverage of the election was restrained, with high levels of self-censorship. Following the close of polls on Monday the media houses colluded to stop any live broadcasts of political statements. They also blanketed the airwaves with public service announcements urging Kenyans to keep the peace. For five days Kenyans were subjected to calls of patience and peace, with no questions asked over why the IEBC needed 5 days to tally already announced results from 290 constituencies.

Even as the IEBC tallying process was experiencing a meltdown, the media remained quiet. No hard questions were asked of whether the problem of inflated rejected votes also affected the actual numbers of the respective candidates. Despite the IEBC’s numerous problems the media did not independently verify the final results. This is not to say that the final IEBC numbers cannot be trusted. But it raises questions of media independence and the robustness of Kenya’s democracy if during an election the clamor for peace can crowd out any effort at verification and/or reasonable analysis.

Because of the failure of the electronic tallying system Mr. Odinga has gone to court to challenge the results. The Supreme Court of Kenya has a fortnight to issue judgment on the petition. Should they rule in favor of Mr. Odinga, fresh elections must be held within 60 days of the ruling. The strength of Mr. Odinga’s case is unclear. On one hand only about 10,000 votes pushed Mr. Kenyatta beyond the 50% threshold, thus obviating a runoff. But on the other hand Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT) conducted by ELOG (Election Observer Group) confirmed the IEBC’s final results. Mr. Kenyatta’s coalition also won handily in the National Assembly races and will have a commanding majority in the lower house of Parliament.

An issue that kept coming up in the campaigns is the fact that President-Elect Kenyatta and Deputy President-Elect William Ruto both face charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Back in 2007 the two were on opposing political alliances and allegedly organized and financed rival ethnic militias. Over 1300 people were killed and more than 300,000 displaced.

Kenyan civil society organizations and the diplomatic community in Nairobi were opposed to the idea of the duo, dubbed UhuRuto, running for office. But the move massively backfired. The duo played the sovereignty/neo-colonialism card and crisscrossed the country accusing foreigners (read the West) of trying to influence the outcome of the Kenyan election. The fact that their respective former rival communities had come together added to the appeal of their message. While in my opinion I don’t think the ICC issue was the decisive factor in this election (it was more about ethnic politics) I would admit that facing the same charges at the ICC increased the likelihood that Messrs Kenyatta and Ruto would form an alliance ahead of the election. After the formation of their alliance it became evident that the duo had a fighting chance and that is when their respective bases got energized.

The election of the two marks the first time ever that ICC suspects were elected president and/or deputy president (Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir was already in office at the time he was charged of war crimes committed in Darfur). It also poses significant challenges to Kenya’s relationship with the West. Being the biggest economy and diplomatic hub in the wider east African region (Kenya hosts the biggest US embassy in Africa and significant American and European commercial interests) it will be interesting to see if Western commercial and geo-political interests will trump the quest for justice for the victims of the 2007-08 post election clashes.

So far the wider Kenyan public has chosen a wait-and-see approach, with a hint of schizophrenia. Most people at once proclaim that China is an alternative to the West (in case Kenya comes under sanctions a la Sudan) and lament at the potential loss of tourists and markets for Kenya’s tea, coffee and flowers. To reiterate US Assistant Secretary for Africa Johnny Carson’s warning ahead of the elections, elections have consequences. Following the outcome of this election only time will tell what those consequences will be for Kenya.