A Kenyan presidential election can be characterised as a contest between logistics and passion.
In general, the opposition has passion on its side, while logistics tend to distinctly favour the incumbent.
The passion on the opposition side is usually pretty obvious for one and all to see. In general, it is the challenger who gets the bigger crowds. It is the challenger’s supporters who are likely to explode in partisan fury if the outcome does not favour their candidate. And it is in the opposition zones that ‘traitors’ will be most swiftly identified and ostracised one way or another.
The incumbent faces a different problem, which is how to get the numbers they need for victory. Because one of the most unforgiving realities of Kenyan politics is that incumbents in general cannot hope to garner the support of more than about 45 per cent of the voting population.
Our voting history shows that in the three elections in which an incumbent won, they had 35 per cent (Daniel Moi in 1992 ); 40 per cent (Moi in 1997 ) and 45 per cent (Mwai Kibaki in 2007 ).
So it’s all very well for the supporters of President Uhuru Kenyatta to dream of their candidate getting a tally amounting to ‘not less than 70 per cent by 9am in the morning’. But the probability of this happening is pretty close to zero.
The advantages that an incumbent enjoys lie primarily in resources and data. A Kenyan president seeking reelection will usually have a pretty clear idea of what the local people in any specific region really think, thanks to the government’s administrative networks.
Based on such information, resources can be intelligently allocated to ensure that a certain opposition supporter is compromised by coercion or bribery; or that a long-dormant ‘development project’ is suddenly revived, and even ‘employs’ a few hundred youths just weeks before the election.
Also, an incumbent president’s ‘strongholds’ will invariably deliver suspiciously high turnouts – almost miraculously so. These kinds of data and resources are not available to the opposition candidates, who really have no choice but to guess (for example) whether that really large crowd they addressed in some corner of the country consisted of serious voters, or largely of disenfranchised youth in an opposition zone where the government has very cunningly made it difficult for any new ID cards to be obtained.
An opposition presidential candidate just has to work very hard; campaign in every corner of the country; and hope that out of this, he will get enough votes to win.
It is for this reason that the opposition leaders are always obliged to present their race for the presidency as some form of “liberation”. If they are to mobilise enough voters to toss out the incumbent (and this requires winning with a margin of at least a million votes) then they must engender a belief that the votes to be cast can bring about a profound change for the better.
I remember attending a church service about 10 years ago, at which a South African bishop spoke movingly of how as he had cast his first vote in his country’s 1994 multiracial general election, tears streamed down his face, as he thought of his parents as well as many friends who had lived and died in South Africa without once casting a vote in such an election.
To us Kenyans in the congregation (this church service was in New York) this was an astonishing display of sentimentality.
We knew very well that African elections – with very rare exceptions – will most likely bring into power conmen and thieves, rather than enlightened leaders who will move their nation forward.
Much as we shared the bishop’s reverence for Nelson Mandela, we were also certain that after Mandela, the South Africans too would have to settle for corrupt or mediocre leaders who would betray their expectations.
But of course this is a lesson which many Kenyans have yet to learn even now. The belief that salvation is at hand is always an appealing prospect.
And so I believe we have a great show ahead, as the opposition sets out to liberate us from the Jubilee government.