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Both the presidential frontrunners say they are heading for victory on 9 August in an election that will be decided by turnout in key battleground regions
The presidential election on 9 August is on a knife edge as the campaigns draws to a close amid mounting concerns about the independence and efficiency of the electoral commission.
Both Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga claim they have the momentum to become Kenya’s fifth president since independence in 1963.
Odinga, backed by incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta, and with key allies Kalonzo Musyoka and deputy presidential nominee Martha Karua’s Azimio La Umoja alliance has the opinion poll lead and the establishment voice to support it. But the numbers at constituency level are less clear (AC Vol 63 No 12, Now the numbers favour Raila Odinga).
And for the last two elections in 2013 and 2017, most of the local opinion polls gave Odinga a clear lead over his opponents. But he lost badly when the official results were announced. That leads to more questions about the credibility of both local opinion polls and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.
The rival Kenya Kwanza team behind Ruto, his deputy presidential nominee Rigathi Gachagua and ex-ministers Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetang’ula are confident that on the day they will restore the lead they held until May (Dispatches 24/1/22, Musalia Mudavadi springs January surprise as he backs Deputy President Ruto). The latest TIFA poll shows a 2.3% lead for Odinga, with a margin of error of 2.1%.
Both sides are trying to control the story, to influence wavering voters in the last days before polling – even if most minds are made up. Azimio speaks of its poll results, Odinga’s stature and history and the benevolent backing of the retiring President.
Kenya Kwanza emphasises its insurgent grassroots campaign and its ‘dynasties versus hustlers’ message – arguing that a few oligarchs and first families have dominated politics since independence. In essence, Ruto is arguing that both Odinga and Kenyatta are partners in the same post-colonial elite that has locked out younger Kenyans.
That argument’s force is qualified by history – Ruto has partnered with both Odinga and Kenyatta in his earlier bids for power. But for many supporters of Ruto, this election is a chance to end the political and commercial dominance of the Kenyatta family which has prevailed for six decades, through the era of founding father Jomo, their candidates Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki up to the present government under Uhuru Kenyatta.
A run-off after 9 August is possible but unlikely. There are only two minor candidates standing and only one has any significant support (2-3%), and this protest vote will fade on the day when taxed with the ‘wasted vote’ argument.
All indicators point to the closest of races. Whichever candidate loses will lodge an appeal in the courts and probably mobilise on the streets. Ruto, who has made a fortune in land and financial assets after three decades in national politics, has bet the farm on winning the presidency. Some hopeful voices think that he and Odinga could reach an understanding in the wake of a close and disputed result. But the animus on the campaign trail suggests the contrary.
Turnout will be key, particularly differential turnouts between regions. This explains why presidential teams don’t crack down harder on friendly fire between parties in their coalitions – it helps bring out the voters on the day in their home bases.
The youth vote will not decide the election – many did not register, but it will be influential and narrowly favours Ruto (AC Vol 63 No 3, Making the vote count). The voting preferences of women will be more significant, but perhaps counter-intuitively, the choice of Karua as the first female Deputy Presidential candidate by Azimio in May has not resulted in a nationwide switch by woman voters to Raila/Karua, as the majority remain pro-Ruto by a significant margin according to the local TIFA opinion polls (Dispatches 16/5/22, Martha Karua and Rigathi Gachagua make the cut as running mates).
Each candidate has his regional strongholds and the two sides are well balanced nationwide. Victory will come from the size of their majority in their home bases; as well as winning a few of the densely-populated swing counties, particularly Nairobi, Kakamega and Kajiado.
Taking community registration rates (estimated, based on 2022 registrations and the 2019 census ethnic results) and turnout rates (again estimated, but informed by previous elections) we can develop a form of simple ‘swingometer’. Recognising that the main candidates have no chance in their opponent’s homelands, the election will be decided in six of seven areas where each side would need to reach a certain threshold to win.
For Ruto to win, he needs to obtain more than two-thirds of the vote in the huge Mount Kenya voting pool (the 6 million registered Kikuyu Embu, Meru, Mbeere and Tharaka voters) of ‘Mount Kenya’ including the diaspora in Laikipia, Nakuru, and Nairobi.
He also needs to do well in Western among the Luhya community: 40% or better although the promises of a landslide for Kenya Kwanza by Mudavadi and Wetang’ula are extremely implausible. Ruto would need to poll solidly (20-25% at least) in Kisii and Ukambani. He needs 35-40% among multi-ethnic Nairobi’s 2.4 million voters, including a strong youth turnout. To get that he must have convinced the youth to vote ‘economy over ethnicity’ and to believe his populist promises of economic liberation via bottom-up economics rather than the more establishment commitments of Azimio.
Against this, Azimio needs to win 33% of the Mount Kenya vote. It need 75% of the Kamba vote, at least half the Maasai vote and 60% of the Luhya vote. With a 2-1 win in Nairobi added to that, combined with their homelands and strongholds, an Odinga victory would be near-certain.
Of the 290 elected constituency MPs in the national assembly, Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) has put up candidates in 266. They will be the largest party in the new assembly. Their allies the Amani National Congress and FORD Kenya, of Mudavadi and Wetang’ula respectively, are tiny in comparison, with 71 and 34, both focusing in Luhya-speaking areas in the east.
Kenya Kwanza has more micro-party allies in Kikuyu-speaking areas (Moses Kuria’s Chama cha Kazi (CCK), William Kabogo’s Tujibebe, Mwangi Kiunjuri’s The Service Party) and a late pro-Ruto entrant in Kamba areas in Alfred Mutua’s Maendeleo Chap Chap, but none have guaranteed seats. Kenya Kwanza’s success or failure therefore depends on the UDA’s performance nationwide. In the constituency polls, their regional strengthen means UDA are pretty much guaranteed 100 seats, while ANC can be sure of barely four and Ford-Kenya the same.
The Azimio coalition, fronted by Odinga but with the active backing of retiring President Uhuru Kenyatta, is by contrast a collection of parties, each with regional strengths. Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement is dominant in the coalition, unassailable in Luo Nyanza and strong in Western, on the coast, Kisii and elsewhere. It has 181 candidates standing and will almost certainly be the second largest party.
Kenyatta’s Jubilee party has 179, but no more than a dozen can be confident of victory, as most are head-to-head with UDA candidates. Next is Musyoka’s Wiper, with only 69 candidates, one third in its Kamba homeland, sure of victory in about 15 seats. Fourth is the Kenya African National Union (KANU), once a nationwide institution under Moi’s presidency, now reduced to a pastoralist rump, with chances mainly in North-eastern, Pokot, Baringo and Samburu.
The pro-Azimio United Democratic Movement (UDM) is a Somali regional party, strong in Mandera. Democratic Action Party-Kenya is a Luhya party, with 60 candidates but few of interest outside Luhya areas, and there are a dozen more micro-parties with minimal to regional impact (Murungi’s Devolution Empowerment Party in Meru, Interior Secretary Fred Matiangi’s United Progressive Alliance in Kisii, the Kenya Union Party in Pokot).
The key question is how well or how badly Jubilee will do against UDA in the old Central and Nairobi province areas. If Jubilee is decisively defeated in the Kikuyu community, Ruto’s path to a working majority is clear. If Jubilee get more than 10 seats, that begins to disappear.
At least 13% of the constituency seats have been conceded to the other side: on that basis, Azimio (or independents) have won 23 seats already, Kenya Kwanza (UDA) 16.
Friendly fire between multiple candidates for the same seat within a coalition has the potential to lose both sides seats, but it is a bigger problem for the more disparate Azimio. Kenya Kwanza has friendly fire issues in central province with the minor parties, and also in Coast and western.
Azimio has multiple competing candidates across Ukambani, North-Eastern, coast, western Maasailand, and the Gusii counties which will probably lose them a dozen seats that they would have held in a simple head-to-head race.
All this could end in hung parliament, with neither alliance holding a an overall majority. This could leave Musyoka and his Wiper party as kingmaker: if Odinga wins the presidency, Musyoka would back his coalition – but if Ruto wins, Musyoka is likely to cut a deal with him.
Kenya’s 47 governors are regional kingpins and the choice of governor matters deeply to many voters. There is a strong ‘articulation’ between presidential, gubernatorial, parliamentary and other elected positions – campaigns work best when there are candidates at each level, reinforcing each other’s messages and mobilising, treating and transporting local voters for the national campaigns and the television cameras.
Voters usually back strong party tickets at county level; in 2017 only 12% of Kenya’s 47 counties elected a governor, senator or women representative which wasn’t from the same team as their presidential preference. But many may choose to back influential individuals who carry their voters into and out of alliances.
This year, for the first time there is a new factor: retiring governors who can no longer stand after reaching their two-term limits. But they are still launching parties, campaigning for their successors or switching to become senators.
The campaign dynamics, candidate list and opinions polls so far suggest that Azimio will win 23 county governorships to Kenya Kwanza’s 20, with four unclear or for independents. At least 13 (mostly in the Kalenjin Rift Valley) are ‘safe’ for UDA and on the other side a similar number are safe for ODM or Wiper.
Jubilee has no safe gubernatorial seats, though plenty of places where it is a strong contender. No seats are safe in western where a four or even five-way split (FORD-K, DAP-K, ODM, UDA, ANC) makes any forecasts problematic.
Given the political landscape, there is less scope this year for the type of post-election violence that spun out of control so murderously in 2007.
A decisive win by either side (55-45 or better) would be a calming but implausible outcome. The most likely flashpoint for violence would be a narrow Ruto win, followed by pro-Odinga street protests in Nairobi and Kisumu, then efforts by the incumbent president and supporters to invalidate the result in the courts, triggering counter-protests in Eldoret and Nakuru.
A narrow Ruto loss would probably see trouble in the urban Rift Valley but his supporters may also mobilise fighters in the western Rift Valley, where pro-Ruto Nandi meet pro-Odinga Luo in Kisumu and in the multi-ethnic tea estates in Kericho. Many non-indigenous workers from the other ‘side’ will pass up the opportunity to vote in their workplace to seek safety at home.
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