When they urged the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission to go ahead with the scheduled October 26 presidential election rerun in Kenya, the ruling Jubilee coalition probably expected that they would at least get the same number of voters to come out and vote for President Uhuru Kenyatta as did in the original August election.
However, according to an interim report from the Commission, around half of the people who voted in August did not vote again in October. According to the Commission, voter turnout in August was 79.1 percent or just over 15 million voters. Meanwhile, although numbers from are still being tallied, even the most generous estimate from the IEBC currently stands at 48 percent turnout – a number that is falling as results trickle in.
What was supposed to be a landslide birthday victory for Uhuru Kenyatta has instead turned out to be a huge embarrassment for his Jubilee party.
The main opposition coalition, NASA, is celebrating the poor turnout as a triumph of their election boycott. In a press conference on October 27, Party Chair Musalia Mudavadi pointed out that low turnout in at least 18 counties across the country can be directly attributed to the boycott. According to forms uploaded on the Commission’s portal, in places as disparate as Mandera, Turkana, Kitui, Kilifi and Homa Bay, some polling stations with the maximum 673 registered voters had only a single ballot cast. The dip was significant, and it was national.
The ruling party has not officially responded to the situation although on local television and radio their supporters have struggled to legitimise the process. They argue that people were intimidated and afraid to come out to vote. Yet, the only places where there was apparent intimidation or tension were counties that Odinga would arguably have won. In most of the country, everyone who wanted to participate in the event did, and everyone who wanted to stay home also did. With those notable exceptions in Nyanza and part of Nairobi, all things considered, this boycott went as well as one would hope in a democratic society.
The Jubilee administration’s embarrassment is palpable, and there has been some indication in the local press that after months of intransigence, they are finally willing to negotiate with the opposition.
In fact, this low turn out was a referendum on the credibility of the October 26 election, in which the entire country said “no thanks”. That even the president’s own supporters wouldn’t participate underscores that Kenyans across the political divide did not think that the event was worth their time.
Certainly, the boycott was a big factor. The fact that Raila Odinga said he would not participate made the whole thing less competitive for supporters of both parties. For many voters, this election was a contest between Kenyatta and Odinga, and when Odinga withdrew, it was no longer a contest. Whereas NASA supporters likely stayed home because the party asked them to, Jubilee supporters probably stayed home because they didn’t think it was worth their time to stand in line for an election their candidate was guaranteed to win. Either way, that says that voters didn’t believe that the event that took place on Thursday was worth it.
Apathy also probably played a part. While outsiders have only just started paying attention to this story, Kenyans have been living with this election for nearly three years. There have been protests, reforms speeches, announcements and intrigues at the IEBC since 2015. It was inevitable after the August iteration was cancelled that there would be a dip in participation in any new election because many Kenyans are simply ready for the whole process to be over.
Fear may also have been a factor. In the days before the election, several dramatic events poisoned the already toxic political environment. A petition was filed to have the Supreme Court postpone the election, but only two of the court’s seven justices showed up. One justice had a particularly dire reason – her bodyguard was shot and injured.
Another gave a more flimsy justification, claiming that she couldn’t find a flight back to Nairobi. Uncertain of how the various political actors would respond to this situation, public anxiety heightened and likely left people unable to rationalise taking on the extra risk for a process that was ultimately designed as a selection of a single candidate rather than an election.
Other region-specific factors are also important. In four counties in the former Nyanza province – the main NASA base – elections were postponed until Saturday because of security concerns. Ballot boxes delivered to the distribution site were not distributed, and police shot and killed at least three protesters in Kisumu county.
In his October 27 speech, Mudavadi accused the police of ethnic profiling and targeted violence against ethnic groups believed to support Odinga, including shootings, door-to-door searches and public humiliation of those caught in the crossfire. Still, voters in the Nyanza region only account for 2.67 million registered voters, and even if not a single ballot were cast here, it would be impossible to argue that this was the only reason why turnout dipped so significantly.
The most interesting outcome to me was the situation in the northern counties of Kenya – the five semi-arid counties that together comprise 57 percent of Kenya’s landmass. In the August election, the Jubilee administration won most of the available seats in these counties. However, in October, turnout in these counties has been dismal. Many polling stations had no voters at all.
In all likelihood, because of the tenuous and fraught relationship these counties have with Nairobi, many voters are far more interested in local elections than they are in the presidential race. In addition to those participating in the boycott, given that there were no familiar faces participating in the October rerun, there was no incentive for many voters to show up.
Overall, NASA’s boycott was likely a necessary but not sufficient reason for the low turnout on October 26. Other factors worked in their favour too, including voter fatigue. Regardless, the Jubilee administration’s embarrassment is palpable, and there has been some indication in the local press that after months of intransigence, they are finally willing to negotiate with the opposition. Ideally, these negotiations should focus on reforms of the electoral commission and improvement of a process for the benefit of all Kenyans – not in a political settlement that results in some form of power-sharing between the two major candidates.
For the Kenyan voter, despite their political affiliation, October 26 was a resounding declaration that after 25 years of multiparty democracy they do not want to waste their time on a process of limited credibility. If there is a victory in all this, it belongs to the Kenyan people who should be honoured by finally giving them an election that is worthy.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article claimed incorrectly that the bodyguard of a chief justice was shot and killed while she was in the car. The article has been corrected.