The election that no one won

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DiA’s Nic Cheeseman reviews the latest Kenyan election on 26th October, explains why this is one poll in which on one emerged a winner, and looks ahead to the future of Kenyan democracy


Thursday’s election was a depressing affair. From the violent protests in some areas to the low turnout in others, it was a day to forget.

I have covered the last three elections in Kenya. In each case, the campaigns were vibrant and dynamic, and polling day was characterised by genuine excitement, long queues and great expectations.

Things were very different on the 26th. Raila Odinga’s decision to withdraw from the contest meant that there was no doubt about who would win the ballot.

The only uncertainty regarded how low turnout might fall, and how bad the violence might get if the security forces were used to try and beat back protestors in order to allow polling stations to open.


As the results started to roll in, sadness for the people who had been killed and injured began to mix with frustration that little had been gained from the exercise.

None of the questions raised by the Supreme Court’s nullification of the original vote were answered by the election.

If anything, recent attacks on the Judiciary and the continued poor performance of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) have revealed deeper problems.

Moreover, while the official results recorded a landslide victory for President Uhuru Kenyatta, the low turnout and the circumstances surrounding the polls means that his government has gained little.

Given all this, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this was an election in which there were no winners.


On Thursday morning I went to watch proceedings at Olympic Primary School. It is a polling station I know well.

In 2007, a number of journalists, observers and international observers were located in Kibera because of a rumour that the government of the day planned to rig out Raila Odinga from his own parliamentary seat.

Under the legal framework in operation at the time, this would have meant that he would effectively have been disqualified from the presidential election.

That day was tense, but also full of humour. Opposition supporters were confident of victory and warmly thanked electoral officials for helping them to vote.

When we turned up wearing a domestic observer’s badge, the long queues that had formed around the School cheered and clapped. “You will protect us”, someone shouted, “you will make sure that Raila is not cheated”. How times have changed.


This year everything was different.

When I arrived in the morning, there were more police than voters. Instead of long queues snaking out from the station and up the road, there were representatives of the world’s media, wearing helmets.

They were filming a drawn out cat and mouse struggle between protesters grouped outside the station, who were throwing rocks over the wall, and the security forces located inside, firing back teargas.

Unsurprisingly, most civilians stayed away, although journalist friends told me that they had interviewed a single individual who had turned up to cast his ballot along with two friends.

The motivation for this appears to have been less to do with a deep-seated belief in the virtues of elections and more to do with posting a vote so that it could be proved that the polling station had opened and hence the election had taken place: the scan of form 34A posted on the IEBC website reveals that the only person to vote at that polling station on Thursday did so for Uhuru Kenyatta.


What counts in an election?

So who won the battle of Olympic Primary School? Raila Odinga, because his call for “national resistance” led to a prolonged attempt to shut the station?

Or Uhuru Kenyatta, because one voter made it through the blockage and gave him their support?

Both sides will claim victory, not just in this instance, but also with regards to the broader outcome of the polls.

Indeed, it was only a few minutes after voting ended before Jubilee’s people were on the media talking up the size of Kenyatta’s majority and their Nasa counterparts were hitting back, claiming every voter who did not go to the polls as their own.


The honest answer, though, is that no one won. President Kenyatta has clearly taken the most votes, but this is a hollow victory.

Rarely can a candidate have secured such a wide margin and gained so little in terms of their command of the political landscape.

Even before voting began, international observers – who had been criticised previously for not condemning the 8 August election – came out to say that the contest had lost credibility; post election verdicts are likely to be even more critical.

But Kenyatta’s difficulties do not mean that this should be interpreted as a resounding victory for Raila Odinga.

Withdrawing from the elections and preventing voting in some parts of the country has made headlines around the world.


But in reality Nasa is not an effective resistance movement and polling stations were able to open in the vast majority of the country.

Moreover, in addition to controlling one of the continent’s most effective states, Kenyatta looks set to enjoy a stronger majority of governors and MPs than in the past – depending, of course, on what happens to a host of election petitions currently before the courts.

Thus, despite all of the column inches the opposition finds itself in a tougher position that at any time in the previous decade.

Indeed, it is hard to see where Nasa can go next:

Odinga has publicly stated that he will not bring another electoral petition before the Supreme Court, but having failed to stop the election he appears to have few other options.


Sadly, the IEBC also lost on October 26. On the ground, electoral officials demonstrated remarkable commitment in many places, doing their job under the most difficult conditions.

Whether one agrees with the election or not, their duty was to do as the Supreme Court and their employer mandated.

Many of those who turned up to work demonstrated a quiet and admirable bravery.

However, once again they were lions led by donkeys. Not only did IEBC commissioners fail to put aside their political difference to ensure the safety of their staff, but the Chair also committed significant errors of judgement.

One of these came just after polling stations had closed.


Despite knowing how important the question of turn out would be to the legitimacy of the poll, and that the ruling party was hoping for a high figure so that it could argue that the boycott had failed, Wafula Chebukati decided to publicly “estimate” that 48% of people had voted.

We should all have deep sympathy for someone trying to do an impossible job under intense political pressure, but this was not the act of a responsible leader.

Amid howls of derision on social media from disbelieving critics, he quickly backtracked, releasing a lower figure shortly afterwards via twitter.

In this way, the Chair of the IEBC actively generated unnecessary confusion at a moment of considerable uncertainty and crisis, in the process further undermining the credibility of his own leadership.

It was either gross incompetence, or a deliberate attempt to create better headlines for the ruling party.


Either way, his reputation appears to be damaged beyond repair.

To understand the prospects for the future, we need to recognise that the anger of opposition protesters is a product of the decisions made by political leaders from a number of different parties over the last ten years.

The people who I interviewed back in 2007 had a belief in the capacity of elections to generate political change.

Having witnessed the defeat of the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) in 2002, there was a genuine sense that elections mattered.

If you got more voters to the polls than the other side, democracy – and election observers – would take care of the rest.


By August 8, that optimism had gone. This was not just because Odinga had turned the National Super Alliance (Nasa) into a “resistance movement”, but also because of a decade of deeply problematic elections.

In this context, the real significance of the mounting evidence of political interference in the workings of the IEBC is less that it undermines the credibility of this particular poll, and more that it demonstrates that a faction of the political elite hold profoundly undemocratic attitudes.

In the past four months, we have seen the use of extreme violence to intimidate key democratic institutions, with both physical and verbal attacks against both judges and electoral officials.

No one has yet been prosecuted for these crimes and in the worst cases it is unlikely that they ever will.


As a result, some of the most important people in Kenya’s democratic system are living in fear for their lives.

This is a sad and unsustainable state of affairs, and it is more significant for the country’s future than the low voter turnout on October 26 because it threatens to undermine the prospects for long-term political stability.

After all, if the rule of law is not effectively upheld in Nairobi, it becomes harder to argue that it must be respected everywhere else.

Turning this situation around will not be easy, and will require the political class to put their differences aside in order to embark on a period of democratic renewal – a project that is only likely to be successful if it is led from the very top.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham

This piece first appeared in Kenya’s Daily Nation

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