Kenya elections: down to the wire

The race for Kenya’s presidency is heading to a nail-biting finish as the front-runner’s lead fades away and the votes counted show the decision going to a run-off for the first time since counting began four days ago.

With around 80 per cent of the constituencies declared, the early lead held by deputy prime minister Uhuru Kenyatta has fallen away, slipping just below the 50 per cent mark needed to secure an outright win. His rival, prime minister Raila Odinga, is trailing with 44 per cent of the vote but results trickling in from Odinga strongholds are closing the gap. With 20 per cent of ballot papers left to count, the outcome could go either way.

The question now is which would be more destabilising: an outright win by Kenyatta or a second round run-off?

Analysts have claimed that a Kenyatta win would have serious implications for Kenya, currently a darling of the West. The son of post-colonial Kenya’s founding father and his running partner William Ruto are due to face trial at the International Criminal Court in July for crimes against humanity. They are accused of fuelling the ethnic violence in which more than 1,000 people died during the aftermath of Kenya’s 2007 presidential elections, rocking the country’s reputation for political stability. Both have rejected the charges, but the US and several European nations have warned of “consequences” if Kenyatta wins.

Trials at the ICC are typically drawn out for years and it is unclear how Kenyatta would actually govern if he won. Not turning up to the trial would further sour relations with the west. But Kenyatta says he will defend his name and attending would imply years of governing from The Hague. Not ideal.

A run-off would give Odinga, the pre-election favourite, a chance to claw back victory. But it would also prolong tensions between the rival coalitions and among nervous Kenyans.

Either way, it’ll be the size of either candidate’s victory that matters, says Clare Allenson, Africa analyst at Eurasia, a risk consultancy. “The margin of the outcome will play an integral role in the intensity of the candidates’ response and their supporters’ reaction, with a razor-thin margin likely to be more destabilising in the immediate aftermath,” she notes.

“If we get a full percentage point below 50 per cent it’s going to be harder for Kenyatta to contest a run-off. If he does win outright and it’s more than a percentage point it’s harder for Odinga to contest. The further away from that nail-biter, the better for stability.”

Without such a clear outcome, the result seems certain to be challenged in court by the losing side.

The electoral commission can thank its new electronic voting system for the delays and rising tensions. The setup was supposed to eliminate the risk of tampering and could have made this the highest-tech vote in African history. But in practice virtually everything that could have gone wrong, did, from overheating computers to tallying errors.

By Wednesday, the system had been abandoned and counting started again by hand. Kenyatta’s Jubilee coalition alleged western interference and Odinga’s CORD camp made claims of rigging. None of this has done anything to enhance Kenya’s reputation as Africa’s emerging information and communications technology hub.

But for all the heated rhetoric, the poll looks unlikely to trigger nationwide unrest. Kenya has done much to avoid a repetition of the violence of 2007 and 2008, reforming its judiciary, improving security and setting up a system of decentralised governance that dilutes presidential power. “There is a risk of contestation, but we are not expecting it to trigger anything like what we saw in 2008,” Allenson says.

Kenya’s election commission says a final result will emerge by the end of Friday. But the count, drawn out for four days already, might well run into the weekend.

Related reading:
Kenya election count set for tight finish, FT
Kenya elections: Kenyatta in early lead, beyondbrics