(1) The Presidential Debate:
On Monday Kenyans witnessed, for the first time ever, a live presidential debate. I must say I was surprised by how well this went. The moderators, at least in the first half of the debate, had very pointed hard-hitting questions – especially on ethnicity and the ICC question.
The top two candidates, Mr. Raila Odinga and Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta, were taken to task about the apparent ethnic arithmetic behind their campaign strategies and the perceived animosity between their respective ethnic groups, the Luo and Kikuyu. Both flatly denied the charges. But it nonetheless provided a moment of open discussion of negative ethnicity, which remains as the key organizing principle of Kenyan politics – with disastrous security and economic consequences.
Mr. Kenyatta was grilled on how he planned to govern from The Hague while on trial at the ICC; or whether it was legally or ethically tenable for him to be running in the first place. Mr. Odinga did not miss the moment and chimed in by stating that it would be logistically challenging to run a government via skype from The Hague. Many of those on stage – with the exception of Martha Karua and Abduba Dida – concurred that the trials should be held in Kenya and that Uhuru should be allowed to run (Today Kenya’s high court ruled that Uhuru and Ruto can run for office despite the charges at the ICC).
So who won the debate?
The simple answer is Mr. Kenyatta.
On negative ethnicity he shared the blame with Mr. Odinga. Mr. Odinga, as the Prime Minister, was often questioned, and himself answered questions like he was the only one on stage currently in government – Kenyatta and Mudavadi are his deputies, and Kenyatta was at one time Finance Minister. As a result he took a lot of flak for the failures of the current government.
Ironically, Mr. Kenyatta’s best moment in the debate was on the topic of the ICC charges against him and his running mate Mr. William Ruto. Because of the sovereignty overtones (Kenyans can “tribal”, but are also nationalist) in admitting that Kenya could not handle the cases, many on stage, including Odinga, said that Mr. Kenyatta should run – adding that the trials should be brought back to Nairobi.
One of the biggest obstacles to Kenyatta’s candidacy has been the ICC question – indeed he almost quit the race over the issue. Donors have given veiled threats of sanctions. Many Kenyans thought (or hoped) that the courts would bar him. But the way the ICC issue played out in the debate reduced its significance as a wedge issue, and may influence a few undecideds. I get the sense that many left the debate with an excuse to vote for Kenyatta despite the ICC charges.
(2) The Numbers:
The numbers have not changed much since my last analysis, save for the fact that Kenyatta’s and Odinga’s numbers have begun to converge.
In the presidential debate Mr. Odinga complained that it smirked of ethnic dog whistling to try and predict the outcome of the election based on ethnic blocs (The combined ethnic blocs of Kenyatta and Ruto make up about 43% of Kenyans). His complaint exposed his biggest fear. His party did a poor job of mobilizing voters to register.
While I disagree with the quality of punditry around this issue so far (the talking heads on TV often merely use raw voter registration numbers to predict outcomes) I don’t see anything wrong with trying to predict the outcome based on polling data.
In essence the outcome of this election will not only hinge on how many people registered where but also on how many of them actually turn up to vote. As I have argued before, this will mainly be a turnout election. Mr. Kenyatta leads by between 650,000 – 740,000 votes based on my turnout models. But Mr. Odinga can seriously dent this lead by simply matching Mr. Kenyatta’s stronghold turnout rates. If he does that and has a good day in Western region on March 4th he will win in round one. Otherwise we are most likely headed for a runoff, after Kenyatta wins the first round.
Either someone in Mr. Odinga’s campaign reads my blog (wishful thought of the day!) or they are sober with the numbers and have realized that they need a high turnout on voting day. Mr. Odinga this week launched a countrywide get out the vote drive.
The latest opinion poll (Friday 15th Feb) show a dead heat between Odinga and Kenyatta at 46% and 43% respectively. Such close numbers, coupled with Mr. Kenyatta’s head-start in voter registration and historically relatively higher turnout rates in his strongholds, do not bode well for Mr. Odinga’s chances.
(3) On the Consequences of a Uhuru Victory:
In the last two weeks the diplomatic community in Nairobi have had a mini freak-out after coming to the realization that Mr. Kenyatta has a good chance to be Kenya’s 4th president. Many embassies insisted that they are neutral, but some also warned that the outcome would have consequences. Barack Obama, the US President, even made a youtube video urging Kenyans to vote peacefully. France bluntly stated that they would only have essential contact with a Uhuru government if he wins.
Their freak-out betrays the knowledge that there is little they can do either before or after the election. Kenya gets about 5% of its development budget from donors; the rest comes from domestic taxes. Nairobi can tell them to take a hike. Plus there’s China. And Somalia and South Sudan to be taken care of by a big international community based in Nairobi. The country is the diplomatic hub of the region, and indeed the continent. Nairobi houses the biggest US embassy in Africa and UNEP headquarters, the only UN office of its kind in the global south. In short Western leverage is limited both before and after the election.
In any case, the ICC case against Uhuru and Ruto appears to be crumbling. The prosecution significantly altered the charges, leading to a request yesterday for more time from the defense teams. The cases may start well after the elections in Kenya are over and done. Or they may be taken back to the pre-trial chamber and dismissed.
All things considered, I would not wish to be in Mr. Odinga’s or his strategists’ shoes right now.