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February 17, 2019

Curse of too-close-to-call polls

Once again, our prayers have gone unanswered. And we face the grim prospect of a very close presidential election.

Now for the benefit of those of you who are atheists and do not believe in the existence of a higher power, this prayer is that by this stage of the election cycle there should be a clear sign of who the likely winner is.

It is a prayer for one presidential candidate to have a lead so dominant that it effectively prepares his lucky supporters psychologically for a graceful victory; and also prepares his rival presidential candidate for a dignified acceptance of defeat.

In other words, it is a prayer for a return to the 2002 General Election, in which candidate Mwai Kibaki's lead over his rival Uhuru Kenyatta (our current President) was so painfully obvious that, first, it prepared Uhuru’s supporters for defeat; and second, it discouraged any last-minute attempts to rig that election in Uhuru’s favour.

For it is our national tragedy that in every presidential election there is always a man who is the political establishment’s favourite: And such a candidate, even if he has no desire personally to receive a fraudulent boost, will often be the beneficiary of a miraculous increase to his final tally.

And the opposition candidate’s supporters, not to be left behind, also do what they can to bring about improbable turnouts in their strongholds, leading to a highly disputable final tally either way.

In short, only an overwhelming and tamper-proof majority for either candidate can guarantee a peaceful election. But that is not what we have here.

And with the presidential candidates more or less equally matched, it is really very difficult to get either side of the political divide to accept that their rivals could just as easily win

This is made worse by the fact that most prominent opinion pollsters have in recent months been made to look like incompetent buffoons, after they miserably failed in their estimates of who would win in key governor contests at the party primary level.

To those of us who retain a bit of faith in these polls (if not necessarily any great respect for these pollsters) the political playing field could not be clearer:

The two leading presidential candidates, Uhuru and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, are both within a few points of 50 per cent in the polls. Allowing for the usual margin of error of five per cent, this effectively means that they are in a dead heat, and the prospect of victory for either of them rests on turnout as well as on the final choices of those who claim to be undecided.

This being so, we then turn our attention to Kenya’s electoral history in search of enlightenment: And this too, disturbingly, offers no clear way of predicting what the outcome will be.

Supporters of Uhuru can take comfort in the historical fact that no Kenyan President has yet lost in a bid to secure reelection. One way or another, they have always won. So why should this election be any different? Surely it will only end up providing more proof that you simply cannot defeat a serving Kenyan president at the polls.

But on the other hand, Raila’s supporters are bound to take consolation in yet another firmly established fact of Kenyan history: That no Kenyan president seeking reelection has ever managed to break the 50 per cent barrier in his final tally.

We have had Daniel arap Moi in 1992 getting roughly 36 per cent; the same Moi getting 40 per cent in 1997; and President Mwai Kibaki getting 45 per cent when he sought reelection in 2007.

Again, the question could be posed: Why would we expect this election to be any different? Surely it will only end up proving that no matter how hard a Kenyan president tries, he simply cannot meet the expectations of his people, and so will be guaranteed to enter any electoral contest as the underdog.

So, as you can see, each side can come up with cogent, statistics-based, explanations to justify their conviction that – in the phrase which has somehow become so popular in this election cycle – “Victory will be ours by 9am in the morning”.

This could easily lead to all kinds of trouble.

Poll of the day