An Election With Consequences

Jennifer Welsh on why this week's presidential election in Kenya matters for both Kenyans and western governments.
By: /
March 8, 2013
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

Six years ago, things looked different.

In December 2007, disputed election results triggered what was arguably the worst crisis Kenya has experienced since achieving independence from colonial rule. The weeks of violence claimed more than 1,000  lives and forced an estimated 600,000 people to flee their homes and villages. It also resulted in significant economic repercussions for the broader east African ‘neighbourhood’. Kenya has long been seen as a bright light in an otherwise troubled continent, and is considered a key Western ally in the ‘war’ on both terrorism and piracy. The country’s reputation for stability made the events of that winter even more unsettling. As a result (and unlike the genocide in Rwanda almost two decades previously), the international community’s response to the events in Kenya was unusually robust, and involved, among other things, a high-profile mediation effort, led by former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. (Indeed, the international reaction to the 2007-8 post-election clashes in Kenya is often held up as a successful application of the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’.) Annan’s intervention resulted in a power-sharing agreement between the two main rivals in the election, former President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, which led to the adoption of the 2008 National Accord and Reconciliation Act, designed to prevent future crises by addressing deeper causes of the violence.

Fast forward to the 2013 elections. This time, it was all meant to unfold very differently. And in many ways it has. Voting in Kenya has been largely peaceful – no doubt helped by the fact that Kenya’s police inspector banned all demonstrations. However, despite concerted efforts to try to persuade Kenyans to eschew voting along ethnic lines (as they did in 2007), they have continued to view elections through a “security lens” – which demands siding with ‘one’s own people’.

More troubling, the two candidates this time around, Uhuru Kenyatta (heir to a political dynasty in Kenya) and Raila Odinga (who has been acting as Prime Minister), are still waiting for the results of the elections. The Independent Electoral Boundary Commission had promised to announce preliminary results within 48 hours of the voting on March 4th, aided by a spanking new electronic tallying and transmission system. But as of mid morning on March 8th (the time of writing), there is still no clear winner. All signs seem to point to a Kenyatta victory: 75 per cent of the constituencies have been declared and he has close to the 50 per cent of votes needed, compared with Odinga’s 44 per cent (both men have passed the second condition for victory – 25 per cent of the votes in more than 47 counties). A run-off will be held in April if neither side secures the required majority.

The events of the past week have put nerves on edge, starting with the colossal failure of the new system. Votes were meant to have been transmitted directly from the tallying centres to election headquarters via encrypted data messages. However, computer servers at headquarters crashed on Tuesday, requiring manual tallying. Even more troubling, a programming error led to the number of rejected votes being multiplied by a factor of 8, resulting in a whopping 330,000 rejected ballots (roughly 6 per cent of the total). After some prevarication, it was decided late in the evening on March 5th that such ballots should be put back into the total – leading Kenyatta supporters to claim that their candidate (who was in the lead) was being unfairly treated. Thankfully, after the move to manual counting, the number of rejected ballots has now been reduced to 1 per cent.

The delay is unsettling for the two candidates and an embarrassing spectacle for the government. The new high-tech voting system was designed to eliminate the possibility of vote-rigging (thereby giving Kenyans stronger faith in their electoral system) and to assert Kenya as an African high-tech ‘hub’. Both of these aspirations have been seriously dented by the reversion to manual counting.

The Kenyan Constitution mandates that the final election results be announced within seven days of the election. Assuming this deadline can still be met, the questions are threefold.

First, can the run-off in April (if required) avoid the glitches that have plagued voting this week? There will no doubt be intense national and international efforts to ensure a cleaner process, given the potential for unrest.

Second, if there is a clear winner, will the losing party contest the result in court? Many analysts are predicted this outcome, given the hiccoughs of the past week, and Odinga’s side has already made noises that it would mount a challenge if it were to lose. What is less certain is whether violence will accompany that challenge, as it did the last time.  That prospect seems more remote in 2013, given the desire to avoid a repeat crisis, and the reality of International Criminal Court indictments of high-profile Kenyan officials (including Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto) for their alleged involvement in stoking the 2007 violence.

A third, related question is how western countries will react, given those indictments, to a Kenyatta victory. The top African official in the Obama Administration, Johnnie Carson, claimed recently that while Kenyans have the right to choose their own leaders, “choices have consequences”. Presumably this is meant to suggest that the U.S. commitment to justice and ending impunity would mean a clear effort by Washington to distance itself from a Kenyatta government. But this too seems remote, given how much the United States continues to need Kenya – arguably even more than Kenya needs the United States.