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February 23, 2019

A huge shift of strategic focus in the election cycle

Voters line up at Otiende area in Langata East Constituency to vote during the 2013 General Elections.
Voters line up at Otiende area in Langata East Constituency to vote during the 2013 General Elections.

Up to the 2013 elections, voter registration was not viewed as a matter of life and death.

Indeed, the anecdotal evidence is that there would generally be just about 60 per cent of Kenyans eligible to vote who would register as voters. And of these registered voters, only about 60 per cent would turn out to vote.

This meant the outcomes of elections in Kenya were generally decided by how votes were cast by just about 30 per cent of all eligible voters.

All this changed in 2013.

In a presidential election which pitted Uhuru Kenyatta against the highly popular Prime Minister of the time, Raila Odinga, Uhuru could only rely on two key voting blocs — Central Kenya and the Rift Valley — while Raila seemed to have Nyanza, Western, Lower Eastern and Coast more or less sewn up.

The only way in which Uhuru would have any chance at all of victory lay in superior logistics and mobilisation. And this is exactly what the Jubilee alliance based its strategy on: first, the most scientific and comprehensive voter registration exercise ever seen, in the core Jubilee support regions; and then organising for a near-perfect turnout on election day.

There are stories of bells being rung as early as 4am all over Central Kenya to get everyone out of bed and remind them to go out and vote. In some polling stations, there were long lines of voters formed, as early as 6am, even though the voting could not begin prior to 8am. 

On top of all this, when Jubilee emerged victorious, the Jubilee strategists could not help boasting of exactly how they had gone about crafting the winning formula.

This may have been a mistake. For it is one of the reliable laws of Kenyan politics, that the opposition parties rarely make the same mistake twice.

The opposition Cord (now seemingly absorbed into NASA) learned its lesson, once and for all.

Thus we find that Raila Odinga has repeatedly told his supporters in what are generally referred to as “Cord zones” that the outcome of the general election will be predetermined by the end of the voter registration exercise. And he has certainly not spared himself in trying to ensure he gets a maximum number of his supporters registered.

This represents a huge change in electoral strategy. In past elections, neither a sitting President nor his key rivals would have been seen going around the country campaigning so hard, this early in the election cycle.

But there is an awareness within opposition ranks that if their supporters do not register in the kind of numbers as the Jubilee Party — with its previous experience of successful mass voter registration — they are guaranteed to lose before the first ballot is officially cast.

In such an environment, the well-known Kenyan tendency to go overboard during an election year, was bound to manifest itself sooner or later.

Sycophancy is very much a feature of Kenyan politics, going back to the days of the single-party state. Just as Cabinet ministers back then would compete in demonstrating their most slavish loyalty to the imperial President, so too now do you find political aspirants keen to leave their party leader in no doubt whatsoever, that they are labouring mightily in the great man’s interests.

It’s a kind of politics that leaves no room for decorum or personal dignity. Hence will a matronly nominated MP, for example, who has grown-up children, stand on a public podium to advise all women present to deny conjugal rights to any partner or husband who is not registered to vote.

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