Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Vote Counting in Kenya

A big issue that authorities have faced in Kenya’s general election relates to spoiled ballots, and whether these should be reflected in the total number of votes against which the numbers of valid votes received by each presidential candidate are measured.

This matters for a couple of reasons.  There are two hurdles that viable presidential candidates (that is, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga) must overcome if they are to avoid an April run-off.  Firstly, the winning candidate must take over 50% of the total votes.  Early but unrepresentative numbers suggested that Kenyatta might accomplish this feat, but his percentage dropped when the IEBC (the organisation overseeing vote-counting) decided that the valid votes for each candidate would be measured against the total number of votes cast rather than the number of unspoilt votes cast, thus reducing Kenyatta’s chances of overcoming the easier of the two hurdles.

The second hurdle requires that the winning candidate receive a minimum 25% of votes in 24 out of 47 counties (the new level of government that the 2010 constitution introduced).  Early returns suggest that Uhuru’s support tends to be deep whereas Raila’s is wide, meaning that many Kenyans can now envision a scenario where Kenyatta wins a slim majority in round one but is still forced into a run-off to demonstrate the breadth of support the constitution required for a legitimate president.

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The mantra of Kenya’s voting officials has been that people shouldn’t be reading too much into numbers as they are announced, and that they should wait until all results are announced before making statements of one kind or another.  They are also pleading with the Odinga and Kenyatta camps to accept the results of the election.

Kenyatta’s running-mate, William Ruto, has already launched an attack on the validity of the vote, accusing foreign embassies of wielding some unspecified influence over the tabulations.  These accusations echo earlier claims about the electronic voting machines (which have not been particularly successful in this election) being tools of western powers, and also the more general and understandable unease about comments by U.S. and EU officials during the past year about the legitimacy of particular presidential candidates.    

“Kitu kidogo” refers, in Kiswahili, to a “little thing”, namely a bribe.  It is a phrase which has been successfully invoked against the same international and donor communities which have in the past excoriated Kenya’s government for corruption.  Political candidates find it useful to accuse foreign embassies and NGOs of working in the same kind of fashion: making demands on Kenyans and their elected representatives in exchange for crumbs from the international table.  The rhetoric is effective, and ambassadors stumble with an almost comic regularity into the trap of finding themselves on the defensive against claims of meddling.  

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Some commentators aren’t letting the dust clear before weighing in on the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the process and the leadership which it empowers.  At the Daily Nation, Karega Munene inveighed against slovenly journalism and analysis which has prevented commentators from evaluating factors beyond ethnicity in describing Kenyans’ electoral preferences. 

These accusations of laziness have also been levelled at the candidates themselves.  Kenyan commentators ferociously mocked the inability of candidates to move beyond their talking points and address questions head-on (something we in the U.S. can all relate to after a two-year election process full of vacuous pronouncements and vapid generalities).  The XYZ Show anticipated that the much-heralded presidential debates would yield little in the way of specifics, mercilessly sending up candidates according to their foibles.  

Many of the Kenyans I know—admittedly a very unrepresentative sample—are unhappy with the choices and cast votes for candidates besides Uhuru and Raila.  Their outlook is that these two candidates represent an old guard, and that little will change irrespective of who is elected.  I hope that this cynicism—something which is also widespread amongst younger voters in particular in the U.S.—can be transformed into a productive overhaul of the political scene. 

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