Three Important Narratives Driving Kenya’s 2017 Presidential Election

I think it is safe to say that Kenya’s 2017 election is a lot more about 2022 than it is about deciding who will be Kenya’s president over the next five years. And for that we have to thank Deputy President William Ruto. In 2013 Ruto defied all odds and served as kingmaker for Uhuru Kenyatta. In exchange, Kenyatta promised to support his stab at the presidency in 2022, assuming Kenyatta wins reelection this August.

At the moment the odds are in favor of Kenyatta winning reelection, either fairly or unfairly.

rutoWhich makes a lot of the campaigning in this cycle about building alliances and potential national coalitions for Ruto’s 2022 stab at the presidency. To this end three important narratives are emerging that specifically relate to Ruto’s quest to be Kenya’s 5th president.

  1. Stop Raila Odinga at all costs: The only man standing between William Ruto and the presidency is Odinga. A surprise Odinga win this August would deal a serious blow to Ruto’s presidential ambitions. As I have noted before, Ruto’s political following has remained largely transactional, and dependent on the constant flow of resources. If out of power these resources would certainly dry. In addition, Ruto has only recently acquired enormous wealth, which means that he still lacks the deep rootedness among Kenya’s economic elite that would afford him protection like it has for the Moi, Kibaki, Odinga, and Kenyatta families. A double loss of political and economic power would be too steep a fall to recover from. If Odinga loses, that will certainly be the end of his political career and will provide a wide opening for Ruto to raid his vote-rich strongholds in preparation for future elections.
  2. Have a negotiation-proof Kenyatta succession plan: It is common knowledge that Kenyatta’s promise to back Ruto in 2022 is not credible. Whatever his personal commitments to Ruto, Kenyatta’s political base will be independent enough to back candidates of their own choice in 2022. And as a former president, Kenyatta will have no power to compel political and economic elites to back the candidate of his choice. Which is why Ruto has sought to cement the credibility of Kenyatta’s promise by building a strong political party in Jubilee Party. JP is supposed to tie Kenyatta’s hands by coupling the political destinies of the Ruto and Kenyatta wings of the ruling coalition in both 2017 and 2022. If this scheme succeeds, the de facto party leader (i.e. Ruto) will have an enormous upper hand in influencing the public political behavior of elites allied to Kenyatta in 2022, perhaps enough to keep them faithful to Kenyatta’s public commitments. If this sounds familiar it is because a variant of this has been done before, by Moi through KANU following the death of Jomo Kenyatta in 1978.
  3.  Consolidate the Rift Valley vote: Ruto is no Moi, yet. Which means that he will continue to struggle to cement the Rift Valley vote, especially this year. Isaac Ruto might surprise him in Bomet (and parts of Kericho). And in the future Gideon Moi will certainly make a run for Elgeyo Marakwet, in addition to Baringo and Nakuru (and the wider Rift vote). All to say that, as a politician, Ruto is at once extremely powerful and vulnerable. He is powerful on account of being Deputy President with seemingly unlimited access to state resources. But he is also incredibly vulnerable, especially because his own backyard is littered with people who would soon see him tossed into the dustbin of history. In this sense he is no Kenyatta or Odinga, both of whom enjoy near-fanatical support in their respective bases and do not have any serious elite challengers.

All this to say that Deputy President William Ruto probably has the most to lose in this August’s presidential election. Which probably means that he will also work the hardest of any of the leading national politicians this cycle. And work hard he will, being one of the most electrifying national politicians on the stump (perhaps second only to Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho). This, of course, is good news for the incumbent Jubilee Party and President Kenyatta’s reelection prospects.

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By the Numbers: A Look at the 2017 Presidential Election in Kenya

Kenya will hold a General Election on August 8th of this year. The national-level elections will include races for president, members of the National Assembly, and the Senate. County-level races will include those for governor (47) and members of County Assemblies (in 1450 wards).

This post kicks off the election season with a look at the presidential election. I also plan to blog about the more exciting gubernatorial races in the coming weeks.

Like in 2013, the contest will be a two-horse race between President Uhuru Kenyatta (with William Ruto as his running mate) and Hon. Raila Odinga (with Kalonzo Musyoka). The convergence on a de facto bipolar political system is a product of Kenya’s electoral law. The Constitution requires the winning presidential candidate to garner more than half of the votes cast and at least 25 percent of the votes in at least 24 counties. In 2013 Kenyatta edged out Odinga in a squeaker that was decided at the Supreme Court. Depending on how you look at it, Kenyatta crossed the constitutional threshold of 50 precent plus one required to avoid a runoff by a mere 8,632 votes (if you include spoilt ballots) or 63, 115 (if you only include valid votes cast). In affirming Kenyatta’s victory, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the latter approach.

But despite the court’s ruling, a significant section of Kenyans still believe that Kenyatta rigged his way into office, and that Odinga should have won.

My own analysis suggests that it was a little bit more complicated. I am fairly confident that Kenyatta beat Odinga in the March 2013 election. But I do not think that he crossed the 50 percent plus one threshold required to avoid a runoff. At the same time, I am also confident that Kenyatta would have won a runoff against Odinga. All to say that I think the results in 2013 reflected the will of the people bothered to vote.

This year will be equally close, if not closer.

This is for the following reasons:

  1. Odinga has a bigger coalition: The third candidate in 2013, Musalia Mudavadi, is joining forces with Odinga this time round – as part of the National Super Alliance (NASA). Mudavadi managed to get just under 4% last time and will provide a much-needed boost to Odinga’s chances in Western Kenya and parts of the Rift Valley.
  2. Kenyatta has had a mixed record in office: The Kenyan economy has grown at more than 5% over the last four years. The same period saw massive investments in infrastructure — including a doubling of the share of the population connected to the grid and a brand new $4b railway line connecting Nairobi to the coast. However, these impressive achievements have been offset by incredible levels of corruption in government – with senior government officials caught literally carrying cash in sacks. Kenyatta is also stumbling towards August 8th plagued with bad headlines of layoffs and the ever-rising cost of living. Barely two months to the election, the country is in the middle of a food crisis occasioned by a failure to plan and a botched response that appears to have been designed to channel funds to cronies of well-connected officials.
  3. The Rift Valley: In 2013 much of the Rift Valley was a lock for Kenyatta (it is William Ruto’s political back yard). This time will be different. Parts of Ruto’s coalition in the Rift, particularly in Kericho and Bomet counties, may swing towards Odinga this year. All Odinga needs is about a third of the votes in these counties. I expect both campaigns to spend a lot of time trying to sway the small pockets of persuadable voters in these two counties.
  4. The Kenyatta Succession in 2022: In 2013 Kenyatta was elected as the head of an alliance, not a party. In 2017 he is running atop a party, the Jubilee Party (JP). It is common knowledge that JP is William Ruto’s project. Because he plans to succeed Kenyatta in 2022, he desperately needs credible commitment from Kenyatta and his allies that they will support his bid when the time comes. JP is an installment towards this goal, and is designed to allow Ruto to whip party members in line during Kenyatta’s second term (on a side note, Ruto needs to read up on the history of political parties in Kenya). But by forcing everyone into one boat, JP may actually end up suppressing turnout in key regions of the country, the last thing that Kenyatta needs in a close election.
  5. The ICC factor (or lack thereof): Because of their respective cases at the ICC, 2013 was a do or die for Kenyatta and Ruto (and their most fervent supporters). This time is different. Both politicians are no longer on trial at the ICC, and so cannot use their cases to rally voters. The lack of such a strong focal rallying point will be a test for Kenyatta’s turnout efforts.

Nearly all of the above factors sound like they favor Odinga. Yet Kenyatta is still the runaway favorite in this year’s election. And the reason for that is turnout.

As I show in the figure below, the turnout rates were uniformly high (above 80%) in nearly all of the 135/290 constituencies that Kenyatta won in 2013. Pro-Odinga constituencies had more spread, with the end result being that the candidate left a lot more votes on the table.

The same dynamics obtained at the county level (see above). In 2013 Odinga beat Kenyatta in 27 of the 47 counties. The counties that Odinga won had a total of 8,373,840 voters, compared to 5,977,056 in the 20 counties won by Kenyatta. The difference was turnout. The counties won by Odinga averaged a turnout rate of 83.3%. The comparable figure for counties won by Kenyatta was 89.7%. At the same time, where Kenyatta won, he won big — averaging 86% of the vote share. Odinga’s average vote share in the 27 counties was a mere 70%.

The same patterns may hold in 2017. The counties won by Odinga currently have 10,547,913 registered voters, compared to 7,556,609 in counties where Kenyatta prevailed. This means that Odinga still has a chance, but in order to win he will have to run up the numbers in his strongholds, while at the same time getting more of his voters to the polls. Given the 2017 registration numbers, and if the turnout and vote share patterns witnessed in 2013 were to hold this year, then Kenyatta would still win with 8,000,936 votes (51.5%) against Odinga’s 7,392,439 votes (47.6%).

The slim hypothetical margin should worry Kenyatta and his campaign team. For instance, with an 89% turnout rate and an average of 85% vote share in the 27 counties Odinga won, and holding Kenyatta’s performance constant, the NASA coalition could best Jubilee this August by garnering 8,921,050 votes (55.4%) vs 7,191,975 (44.6%).

Kenyatta is the favorite to win this August on account of incumbency and Jubilee’s turnout advantage. But it is also the case that the election will be close, and that even a small slip up — such as a 3 point swing away from Jubilee between now and August 8th — could result in an Odinga victory.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s State of the National Address to Parliament

On Thursday President Uhuru Kenyatta presented his annual report to the joint session of Parliament. You can find the text of the speech here and the youtube clip here.

Key achievements of his administration over the last three years include (i) rural electrification (nearly all primary schools have been connected to the grid — THIS IS PRETTY BIG DEAL); (ii) the construction of a new railway line (the project is a corruption boondoggle, but the speed with which it is being carried out is stunning); and (iii) power generation.

Below is a word cloud showing some of the issues the president focused on. Corruption, health (hospital), security, and general service provision were the main policy areas that the president chose to focus on.

I was surprised by the failure of “agriculture”, “land”, “education”, and “infrastructure” to make the top twenty. “Road” had a respectable show. There was also a lot of politics — mainly directed at the opposition and civil society.

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Perhaps in reaction to David Ndii’s provocative article on the failure of the Kenya Project, the president’s speech was particularly nationalist. The words “Covenant” and “Nationalist” appeared 27 and 22 times, respectively, well ahead of key policy-related terms.

I am personally worried that the word “development” outperformed “economic/economy.” I hope this is not a signal that the government views the running of the economy as a massive “development project.” We all know how those usually turn out.