How a handskae cost Odinga an election.
For several tense days after Kenyans voted on August 9 – to decide between Vice President William Ruto and Raila Odinga, the 77-year-old opposition leader contesting his fifth presidential election – the outcome remained dangerously uncertain , amid fears the country could once again descend into the ethnically-based mob violence that erupted after the 2007 general election, in which more than 1,200 people were killed.
Ruto, 55, was finally declared president-elect on August 15, winning by the slimmest of margins – 50.49% to 48.85% for his veteran opponent. And one of the key factors may have been a famous handshake in 2018 that ended years of feuding between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Odinga – and transformed the public image of Ruto and his challenger.
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Bearing in mind Kenya’s checkered electoral history (it also suffered violence around the first multiparty general elections in 1992, as well as in 1997 and 2017) and the country’s leading role in Africa, fellow members of the Commonwealth, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States and other Western countries, made it clear how high the stakes were, saying in a statement on August 5: “ This election is of enormous importance. It marks the first full transition to the presidency and many governorships since the introduction of the 2010 constitution…Kenya is an anchor for stability, security and democracy – not just in the region or on this continent, but all over the world.
With much of the 2007-08 violence attributed to delays in announcing election results, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) began posting results online shortly after the closure of the 46,000 polling stations, the media keeping a current account. It was just part of a huge effort to allay fears and build confidence in the democratic process: At a cost of more than $370 million – or $17 per vote – it was one of the most expensive in the world per capita, with printed ballot papers. in Europe and biometric technology to identify voters by their fingerprints and images.
The conduct of the election drew admiring remarks from neighboring countries with more questionable procedures: ‘We are shocked that Kenyans can hold elections without their internet being cut off,’ a Tanzanian tweeted in a sardonic reference to the blackout of his country’s social networks before the 2020 elections. “The electoral secretaries have not been driven from their posts. The ballot boxes did not disappear or got lost. No policeman disturbed the citizens of the country. How is it possible?’
There was also praise, with only minor reservations, from international election observers, such as the Commonwealth Observer Group (COG), who praised Kenyans for the “peaceful and orderly” vote, raising hopes that the country “would serve as an inspiration”. for the Commonwealth and indeed the rest of the world [and] relevant lessons have been learned.
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However, Bruce Golding, head of the COG, also warned of the “lag” between the vote and the announcement of the final results, while Ernest Bai Koroma, former president of Sierra Leone and head of the mission of the The African Union pointed to the low turnout, especially of young people, as a concern. ‘Only 39.84% [8.8 million] of the total registered voters were young people, down 5.17% from 2017 figures,” he said. (People under the age of 35 make up 75% – or nearly 38 million – of Kenya’s population, according to the 2019 census.) The IEBC said overall turnout was around 60%, well in below 80% in 2017. “Kenyans are tired of waking up. early and vote for a government that doesn’t care,’ a voter told Reuters in Naivasha. Many young people did not even register to vote, according to IEBC figures.
But despite efforts to make it an exemplary election, Kenyans’ suspicions grew when news agencies halted their public tallies on the night of August 11 – with the two candidates each securing around 49% of the vote. Three days later, on August 15, the electoral commission finally declared Ruto president-elect. The four-time runner-up had again lost – by just 233,211 votes or 1.64 percentage points. Scuffles broke out in the score room and the result was disputed by Odinga’s team, while four of the seven IEBC commissioners also refused to endorse Ruto’s victory.
Odinga asked the Supreme Court to overturn the results; his running mate, Martha Karua, tweeted, “It’s not over til it’s over.” IEBC President Wafula Chebukati told the court that Ruto had been properly elected, but Commissioner Irene Massit disputed this and accused Chebukati of “lack of transparency, accountability and verifiability”, calling his conduct a “fanciful and only intended to… overthrow the constitution”. ‘
However, US Institute of Peace analyst Aly Verjee concluded: “So far little evidence of electoral misconduct has been presented, with most observers suggesting that polls have improved. compared to the last vote of 2017”. He praised the speed with which the results were published online, noting that allowing media and citizens to review the data “helped limit, at least to some extent, the volume of corrosive rumours.”
While praising the diligent election officials (one of whom disappeared just before he was due to announce the local results and whose tortured body was found days later), he criticized the dissenting commissioners for challenging the results on tiny discrepancies easily explained by rounded percentages. “The credibility of the election management body is easily squandered,” said Verjee, who pointed to voter turnout in areas favorable to Ruto as the crucial factor in his victory. He noted that it was weak even in former Odinga strongholds, such as Mombasa, where it won but with a 44% turnout, down from 67% in 2013 and 60% in 2017. In contrast, counties Ruto winners had a 70-75% turnout.
Equally fragile, it seemed, was Odinga’s popularity and leadership position in much of the country. Opinion polls in April put Odinga behind Ruto by 15 percentage points last November, 11 in February and still seven points behind in April. Although he then overtook his rival, it was never by much – a poll a few days before the election showed a lead of just 8 points.
While the 22-year age gap likely played a role, Odinga lost to Ruto because he failed to sufficiently enthuse his loyal Luo supporters in western Kenya. As Professor Nic Cheeseman observed in the Elephant: “Many voters were disappointed by the handshake and prospects of an Odinga/Kenyatta alliance. Odinga’s rapprochement with Kenyatta (who had fallen out with his deputy and endorsed his former opponent to thwart him) suddenly made Ruto the challenger and won over many members of Kenyatta’s own Kikuyu community. And, ironically, that handshake transformed the perennial opposition leader into one of the ruling elite – as the son of Kenya’s first vice-president, Oginga Odinga, he has been described as the scion of a ruling dynasty, just like the president, the son of Kenyan independence. chief. Meanwhile, Ruto, vice-president of an unpopular government for nine years, could somehow pose as a reformist insurgent.
“Ruto presented himself during the campaign as a brash underdog, reenacting his chicken-selling days since childhood. He told voters that the election was a competition between ‘cheaters’ from humble backgrounds and the ‘dynasties’ of Kenyatta and Odinga,” Africa News said.
Odinga lost the campaign as much as Ruto won it – and will regret the day he posed for that fateful handshake with Kenyatta.
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Roundtable Editorial Board
“A Look at the Commonwealth” columns examine current issues facing the Commonwealth