What we know and what we don’t know about the poll

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Nic Cheeseman
In his bi-monthly column, our Co-editor Nic Cheeseman argues that we may know far less about the 2013 elections than we think we know. He explores how this might change the way we perceive the fairness of the poll, the key issues in the election, and Kenyan politics more broadly.



Former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld is less famous for positions he has held than for three short lines he uttered at a press briefing on Iraq in February 2002: ‘There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.’ Rumsfeld was ridiculed in some quarters for what many saw as an unnecessarily convoluted statement, but he made an important point: sometimes we know far less than we think we do. A conference in Nairobi on 3-4th June revealed that the recent elections were one such event. The academic meeting, organised by the universities of Durham, Oxford, and Warwick in collaboration with the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, revealed that although we can answer many questions about the elections, we lack the information to answer many more.

Let us follow Rumsfeld and start with the ‘things that we know that we know’. Some papers presented at the conference documented how many of the key mechanisms designed to prevent rigging collapsed, including the use of fingerprint verification technology and the transmission of preliminary results via mobile phone. Speakers also discussed the worrying number of irregularities in the way that the relevant forms for recording results at various levels of counting and aggregation were filled (or in some cases not filled) in. Such inconsistencies – many of which remain explained – have understandably undermined the credibility of the election in the eyes of CORD supporters and many civil society groups. Yet discussions over the two days, the conference also revealed a general consensus that the Jubilee Alliance ran an excellent campaign that had a powerful narrative, employed effective international consultants, and comfortably outspent rival parties many times over. Given this, and the fact that voters in Central Province historically register and turn out at higher levels than those in Nyanza, it seems plausible that Uhuru Kenyatta won more votes than Raila Odinga, whether or not he surpassed the 50 + 1 threshold for a first round win.
As things stand, working out just how well President Kenyatta did, how extensive electoral irregularities were, and whether a run-off should have been held, is impossible because of Rumsfeld’s second category: what we know we do not know. One of the main points that emerged from the conference is that our knowledge of the election is based on shaky foundations because we do not yet have the full set of election results for all six contests. The electoral commission was expected to declare the full set of results for all positions – MP, senator, governor, and so on – shortly after the presidential elections. That has not happened, raising suspicion that comparisons between the different contests will reveal a new set of irregularities. For example, if it is true that one million more votes were cast in the presidential election than the other contests – as recently confirmed by a commissioner – this would significantly undermine the credibility of the elections, because very few domestic or international election observers reported seeing people vote in the presidential election and not vote in the contest for governor.

Indeed, given how important posts such as governor and senator are, it seems implausible that hundreds of thousands of Kenyans would have bothered to go to the polls and queued up for hours in the sun only to leave before recording their preferences. Therefore, unless the official results can be reconciled in a way that explains such inconsistencies, their release will call into question the conduct of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and the Supreme Court, whose validation of the outcome effectively brought the elections to a close.

What we don’t know is even more important than you might think, because it has serious implications for what we think we do know. Most obviously, if one million more votes were cast in the presidential election than the others, this would suggest that there were not just minor problems with the election results as the Supreme Court concluded, but that the breakdown of the process was far more widespread than many currently realise. Less obviously, the announcement of the full results may also change the way that we think about Kenyan politics. As things stand, many commentators and some of the academics who presented at the conference have interpreted the high turnout and bloc voting in Central Province, Nyanza, and Rift Valley in favour of coalitions led by figures from those regions as evidence that ethnic voting patterns were particularly strong in 2013. In turn, this has led a number of academic and media commentators to conclude that the controversial issues that enabled Jubilee leaders to rally their own communities to their cause – most notably the ICC cases and some of the statements made by the international community – were key to Mr Kenyatta’s victory. But if the additional one million presidential votes were cast in these strongholds, it may be that less Kenyans actually turned out to vote in these areas, and that those who turned out voted ‘less ethnically’, than we think. If this turns out to be the case, it would follow that the role of the ICC and the international community may not have been as important as many have argued.

What about Rumsfeld’s final category – what we don’t know we don’t know? As the philosophers among you will already have realised, we can’t say anything much on this point. Rumsfeld’s point was precisely that many of the most important things we don’t know cannot be anticipated, because they will be so new and unexpected that they will take us by surprise. For example, it is possible that new information about the elections will emerge that will change the way we think about Kenyan politics in new and important ways that none of us could have predicted. This may provide further evidence of President Kenyatta’s popularity, helping to legitimise the results and the political system. Or it may enable us to see what went wrong, and how key democratic institutions can be reformed and supported to strengthen their performance next time round. Either way, it is important to keep an open mind as we await the final results from the IEBC, and to remember that we may know less than we think we do about the 2013 Kenyan elections.

This column originally appeared in the Daily Nation on 7th June 2013.

The Daily Nation is the largest newspaper in East Africa with a daily circulation of around 205,000.

8 thoughts on “What we know and what we don’t know about the poll

  1. Let us stop this b******t,the bottom line is Raila lost big and like his pathetic father b4 him he will never rule us.

    1. You sound like Kihika Kimani….. (or is it JJ Kamotho) They said the same things…. KANU sycophancy. Silly boi

  2. IEBC cannot conduct a credible election in Kenya at the moment, the country’s executives are corrupted all over.

  3. It is obvious to soooo very many of us that Kenyatta was “rigged” into office and that he never had a chance to clinch the presidency in free and fair elections. There was lots of coercion widely used, in tandem with bribery as well as threats. Folks, both junior and senior government officials and even members of the independent constitutional bodies were threatened and/or bribed. Bribery seemed to have won the day.

    About Jubilee running an “Excellent Campaign with a powerful message”….. that is the joke of the year. The clowns had nothing ata ll interesting and exciting to say. All they did was mention Raila in negative light. Oh, Please!!! They had the most boring campaign I have witnessed in recent times in Kenya. Uhuru is no narrator and is not an effective public speaker. Ruto simply laments his woes as a corrupt fellow wanted for crimes against humanity.

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