Kenya trips over its new democracy
Kenya has been left with its own version of Florida’s infamous “hanging chads” fiasco because hundreds of thousands of spoilt ballots have muddied the outcome of this week’s critical election. Just as in the United States in 2000, where controversy over rejected votes led to court battles, the fate of Kenya’s election may be decided by lawyers.
A massive failure of public education, twinned with a complex new electoral system brought about in accordance with its new Constitution, may have put the country on course for an unwanted second round in the presidential contest. Uhuru Kenyatta, one of Africa’s richest men and the son of the first post-independence president, took a commanding lead in early results from Monday’s votes. But the slow reporting of results and a high number of spoilt ballots may yet deny him a first-round win.
“The problems are administrative rather than malicious,” said the Kenya historian and author Charles Hornsby. “But I can see a very difficult lawsuit coming whichever way the IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] ends up treating the spoilt ballots.”
Kenyatta led his nearest rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, by 53% to 42%, after more than 40% of the provisional count was reported. But those percentages reflect the valid votes cast and do not take into account spoilt ballots, which could amount to more than 600 000 or 6% of all votes. If Kenyatta’s share of the vote is calculated against all ballots, including spoilt ones, it drops beneath the 50% plus one needed to win in the first round. Kenya’s new Constitution appears to be clear on this point, which calls for a majority of “all ballots cast”, lawyers have said.
Kenyatta’s Jubilee coalition said on Wednesday that they opposed the inclusion of rejected votes and accused foreign ambassadors of interfering in the process. The frontrunner and his running mate William Ruto both face trial at the International Criminal Court later this year on charges related to their alleged involvement in the violence that engulfed Kenya’s previous election.
Jubilee used pre-election warnings from Britain and the United States that a Kenyatta government – led by the indicted pair – could face sanctions in order to stir nationalist sentiments and boost their own vote. They may now use a similar tactic to pressure the IEBC and the judiciary to ignore the letter of the law regarding rejected ballots.
The outspoken Ruto railed on Wednesday against “foreign missions” whom he accused of swaying the electoral commission on its ballot decision. The decision “is meant to deny us a first-round win”, he told the local newspaper the Standard. The British High Commissioner said it was “not true that Britain has a view [or] position on rejected votes”.
Tension over the outcome has been heightened by the failure of the electronic transmission system meant to deliver provisional results in a quick and transparent manner. The breakdown meant that a website featuring the provisional count, which has also been displayed since Monday on Kenyan television stations, froze and then forced a manual recount that began on Wednesday afternoon.
“There’s no reason to suspect something fishy,” said Ken Opalo, a Kenyan political scientist who is monitoring the results. “It’s basically incompetence.”
Under Kenya’s Constitution, passed in a referendum in 2010, the country now has a new system of local government, a new senate and regional governors. The layers of new officials meant Kenyan voters were presented with six pages of colour co-ordinated ballot papers and six ballot boxes on election day.
The colour system has been criticised for relying on similar shades of blue and beige that appear to have confused some voters, including a senior state official who was filmed posting ballots in the wrong boxes. A small army of poll officials and party agents were present on election day but it appears roughly six out of every 100 voters got it wrong.
The mayhem that followed the disputed outcome of Kenya’s last poll five years ago guaranteed that the world was watching and a flood of foreign media arrived for Monday’s election. Despite the attention and the deaths of 15 people in attacks blamed on separatists in the coastal area of Mombasa, Kenya had its most peaceful polling day in memory.
But as long as uncertainty remains over the outcome, East Africa’s biggest economy will be haunted by the post-election violence of 2008, in which 1 300 people were killed and 600 000 more driven from their homes.
Neither Kenyatta nor Odinga are thought to want a run-off, with the former convinced he has won and the latter aware that another vote in 30 days time is unlikely to give a different result.
A repeat of the ill-tempered election campaign that picked at the seams of Kenya’s mosaic of ethnic communities will not help anyone either. Esther Passaris, a Nairobi businesswoman who campaigned for the role of national women’s representative, said she had been disappointed by another tribal contest.
“We embrace our own,” she said. “There will come a time when it’s about leadership but we’re not there yet.”
A large proportion of Kenyans such as Mustapha Hersi, a trader in the Somali-dominated Eastleigh district of the capital, care less about who wins than getting a clear outcome. “We don’t want more elections and we don’t want a second round. The uncertainty is bad for business.”