On Tuesday, August 8, Kenyans will vote to fill about 1,880 positions. The highest profile race is for the president. The leading candidates are the Jubilee party’s Uhuru Kenyatta and the opposition National Super Alliance’s Raila Odinga. Both are scions of family and political networks that have dominated Kenyan politics since independence. Polls indicate that the race is very tight. Both presidential candidates, however, have assured their supporters that they will win; they have not prepared their followers for the possibility of defeat.
The 2007 elections in Kenya were very violent and reflected the important role of ethnic rivalries in politics, notably between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. In the aftermath, Kenya adopted a new constitution designed, in part, to mitigate the winner-take-all electoral culture that promoted violence. It also delegated significant power to forty-seven newly-created counties, each of which has its own governor, thereby reducing the role and power of the presidency. The elections of 2013 were subsequently significantly better. In 2013 Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and William Ruto, a Kalenjin, ran on the same ticket as president and vice-president, respectively, rather than against each other as had been the case in 2007. This, combined with the new constitutional arrangements, certainly mitigated instances of violence. In 2013, Kenyatta’s chief presidential opponent was Raila Odinga, who comes from the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Luo. The election of 2017 is a rematch between the two. The continued alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto continues to reduce the likelihood of violence between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. What is less known is how the Luo will respond if Odinga is defeated.
A recent study shows that violence occurs in about half of all elections in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of it is before the polling date, but when it occurs after the results are announced, it tends to be more severe. In Kenya, under the new constitution, governorships are fiercely contested. It is likely that much, perhaps most, of the violence has accordingly been de-centralized and received less international media attention than would have been the case in Nairobi. Indeed, there has already been violence in the lead-up to August 8, notably the kidnapping and murder of Chris Msando. He was in charge of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Data Centre, which is responsible for the management of computer systems for voter identification and vote counting. If there is a wave of violence after Election Day, it may well be some days before the extent of it becomes known.
The IEBC is trying to implement an incredibly complex electronic voter registration and vote-counting system, for which Msando was responsible. However, according to the International Crisis Group, similar systems have failed in other African elections.
Levels of anxiety about the elections are high in Kenya and in neighboring states which are closely tied to the Kenyan economy. Credible polling results will be crucial to avoiding violence and system failure would pose a risk to that credibility. The post-election stance of Kenyatta and Odinga will also be of great importance if widespread violence is to be avoided. If the loser concedes (as incumbent Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan did to Muhammadu Buhari in 2015), the prospect of violence is much reduced. However, the contrary is true if the initial loser contests the results, especially outside the courts and in the streets.