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January 20, 2019

Why this election will be historic

Why this election will be historic.
Why this election will be historic.

Regular readers of this column will know that for the past few weeks, I have been trying to reconcile the two central historical facts about Kenyan presidential elections.

The first of these is that all Kenyan presidents seeking reelection have in the past always won – one way or another. Specifically, retired President Daniel Moi in 1992 and 1997; and retired President Mwai Kibaki in 2007.

This would seem to argue that the odds against defeating an incumbent Kenyan president are so steep as to be virtually insurmountable. And that this rule would apply even to a politician as formidable as the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is currently running even with President Uhuru Kenyatta (according to most pollsters) as we head into the final days of the current election season.

But that is only one factor.

The second, and equally valid and historically verifiable factor is that no Kenyan president seeking reelection has ever got more than 50 per cent of the vote. We note that in 1992 Moi got only 36 per cent of the vote; in 1997 Moi did only slightly better and got 40 per cent; and when Kibaki was reelected in 2007, he got 45 per cent.

Broadly speaking, there is no mystery as to why Kenyan presidents tend to have, on the one hand, a very strong chance of reelection; while on the other hand, they tend to be less than overwhelmingly popular. The key determinant of this odd pattern is that in all those elections past, the president was up against a divided opposition, and faced at least two prominent candidates each with strong regional support.

The total vote for the other candidates was always more than what the president himself received. Indeed, in all those cases, those who had supported the opposition candidates were left to gnash their teeth and ask in fury why their candidates had not managed to unite before the election.

But none of that mattered. The serving president was duly sworn in for yet another five-year term.

Given these circumstances, the current presidential election – now just days away – is bound to prove historic in more ways than one.

Maybe we will find that a president who is as good a campaigner as Uhuru Kenyatta is, can indeed break this longstanding jinx and get over 50 per cent of the vote in a reelection bid.

Or maybe we will realise that what really mattered all this time was for Uhuru to strategically break up the opposition coalition, NASA; and that the President effectively lost the election when he failed to find a way to do this.

Any fair assessment of how things stand at this point cannot fail to draw gloomy conclusions for Uhuru’s bid for reelection.

Uhuru is running on his development record. And one of the established eccentricities of Kenyan voters is that they rarely pay any attention to that kind of thing.

Kenyan presidential elections are very simply contests of “us against them”. And the key to victory is to ensure that “we” have a larger political coalition than “them”; and that “we” are united and “they” are not.

Beyond that, nothing else really matters.

No Kenyan president seeking reelection has yet faced an opposition as strong and as united as NASA. And there can be no denying that the President is in a tight corner.

But there is plenty of consolation for Uhuru in considering that virtually every Kenyan president has once or twice been in even tighter corners – and they have all the same gone on to win reelection.

The return to a multiparty political system in 1991 was widely celebrated as marking the end of the tyrannical Moi regime: yet Moi still went on to win two presidential elections.

Kibaki suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own Cabinet ministers (led by Raila) who opposed the draft constitution of the 2005 referendum. It seemed like it was the end of the road for Kibaki. But just two years later he was yet again sworn in as president.

So, strong as NASA undoubtedly is, it would be a mistake for its top leadership to underestimate Uhuru, even this late in the day.

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