GUESSWORK

Kenyans now free to ignore opinion polls

In Summary
  • You cannot have a colourful and dynamic election campaign without the youth.
  • It is mostly young people who turn up in their thousands to attend the ‘mammoth rallies’ beloved of Kenyan presidential candidates.

With every general election, and every referendum, a great deal of fuss is made about the ‘youth vote’. The received wisdom here is that this is the vote bloc that matters most when it comes to scoring a major political victory.

Now while no doubt Kenya has a mostly youthful population, when it comes to the final tally, there is rarely any ‘youth vote’ to speak of, decisively leading one candidate to victory and another to defeat.

Instead we see the same old patterns that have been self-evident since Independence: that Kenyans will vote by region, or tribe or clan, but rarely on account of age.

Here and there we will have a young MCA who obviously relied on his agemates to vote him in. But this only happens within the limits set by which party is most popular in that region, and whether the young politician in question belongs to that party.

Even in Northern Kenya, which is perhaps the only region with a long tradition of sending relatively young men to Parliament – and since the 2010 constitution, voting in relatively young men as senators and governors – you will not find that the successful young man relied on his agemates to win the election.

Rather it will usually be the case that it is the clan elders of that constituency or county who sat together and reached a consensus on whom they would collectively support.

So why is the ‘youth vote’ such a major issue in Kenyan electoral events, when it invariably proves to be either elusive or non-existent?

I believe there are two reasons for this.

First is that you cannot have a colourful and dynamic election campaign without the youth. It is mostly young people who turn up in their thousands to attend the ‘mammoth rallies’ beloved of Kenyan presidential candidates.

I think young Kenyans are generally embarrassed to admit that they are every bit as tribal in their thinking and their electoral choices as their parents are. In this, such young Kenyans have something in common with that very elusive creature of American politics, ‘the Trump voter’.

But it stands to reason that any crowd to be seen at a political rally, whether in a major city, or just in a village market, is an exceedingly small part of the total population of the area. Walk away from that big rally – walk just a few hundred metres – and you will see people going about their daily affairs just as they would if there was no such rally.

The second reason is not at all funny, but actually quite tragic. Older people will generally have something to do every day when they get out of bed. Or they may be living off some kind of meagre pension.

But the tragedy of Kenyan youth is that an incredibly high number of them are unemployed. So not only do they welcome any little excitement that might come their way in the course of an election campaign. But there are often politicians who are only too ready to part with cash, in the name of ‘mobilising the youth’ to attend a rally.

I have also noticed that young Kenyans are forever proclaiming themselves to be ‘a new generation’ which is not weighed down by the tribal politics of their fathers and forefathers; that all they want is to see ‘development’. And any pollster who seeks their views, will get a lot of talk about the development-centric new generation, which is going to completely change the political landscape.

However, all this is just political drama.

I think young Kenyans are generally embarrassed to admit that they are every bit as tribal in their thinking and their electoral choices as their parents are.

In this, such young Kenyans have something in common with that very elusive creature of American politics, ‘the Trump voter’.

Both in 2016 and in the recent November 2020 US presidential election, all the polls predicted an overwhelming defeat for Donald Trump. But in 2016 he won narrowly. And in 2020, he lost narrowly.

In both cases, all of the widespread polling done before the election, proved to be hopelessly inaccurate. One explanation offered was that many of those who intended to vote for Trump found it hard to admit this when questioned.

So here is my unsolicited advice over the upcoming ‘BBI referendum’: feel free to ignore any reports issued by the local pollsters.

It is all just guesswork.