NAIROBI, Kenya — President Uhuru Kenyatta looks set to be declared the winner of Tuesday’s presidential election in a first-round victory, with 54 percent of the vote. But the result is still provisional and his main rival, Raila Odinga, who has about 45 percent, has refused to accept it. Odinga and his fellow leaders in the opposition party, National Super Alliance (NASA), suggested that votes were manipulated by the ruling party and called the process a “sham.” The allegations show that digital electoral technology cannot itself overcome deep-seated political distrust.
The opposition also alleged that the electronic results had been “hacked” using the login of a senior electoral commission official who was murdered just before the election. A day later, leaders from NASA declared that they had acquired the “legitimate” results from an inside contact at the electoral commission and that Odinga was the winner. Meanwhile, a slow process of verification has been under way — the initial transmitted figures are being compared to digital scans of the paper forms, which were filled in at each polling station, to see if they are the same. So far, that checking has not revealed any major discrepancies — though it is still in progress — with reportedly thousands of forms to be verified.
While many dismiss NASA’s claims, a significant number of Kenyans believe them. This suspicion is rooted in a problematic electoral history and allegations made during the campaigns. In 2007, a deeply flawed presidential election triggered widespread violence; in 2013, the electoral process was again mired in controversy, though the country escaped widespread violence. In many ways, Odinga is fighting these elections as much as the current one, and it is the knowledge that he has been hard done by in the past that makes it so difficult for NASA supporters to let go of the dream of power.
Now, Kenya waits. There have been isolated protests by Odinga supporters, quickly suppressed by the police. The streets are eerily quiet.
The election campaign was heated since the main candidates were confirmed. Back in January, Kenyatta enjoyed a large lead in the polls. However, once Odinga brought his former ally Musalia Mudavadi back into the fold and the opposition united under the NASA banner, the race became much closer. Momentum built up around Odinga and opinion polls narrowed, with some even giving the NASA flag-bearer a narrow lead. In turn, the polls generated a real belief among opposition supporters that this could be their time to capture the presidency. This was further bolstered by Odinga’s clever use of a biblical allegory, positioning himself as Joshua leading his people out of oppression to Canaan.
Three factors gave the election a distinctive edge and made controversy likely. First, at 72 and with a history of poor health, many commentators assumed that this election would be Odinga’s last. Combined with the absence of strong leaders to take his place, this encouraged many opposition supporters to believe that it was both their and Odinga’s last chance to take power — and that the contest was therefore a “must-win.”
Second, key figures on the government side were also desperate to emerge victorious. Most notably, Deputy President William Ruto is well aware that the elections (plural, for Kenyans voted for multiple levels of government) are central to his own ambitions. Ruto hopes to succeed Kenyatta in 2022, when the incumbent will be unable to stand again. Ruto needs Kenyatta to win, but he also needs his allies within the ruling Jubilee Party to do well in the lower-level elections.
Third, the final weeks of the campaign were mired in rumors after Chris Msando, the electoral commission’s chief technology manager, went missing. His tortured body was found days later, and NASA leaders accused the government of having him killed to facilitate the manipulation of the voting technology. The police investigation into Msando’s murder is ongoing. Meanwhile, NASA continues to insist that his death was designed to leave the system vulnerable to being hacked.
One of the main challenges for the opposition is that they campaigned for the introduction of the election technology that they are now denouncing. The direct transmission of the results from polling stations was designed to act as an independent check on the official tally — deterring the kind of tallying fraud that seems to have widely occurred in 2007. But this does mean that the livestream broadcasted unverified results that had not been checked against the hard copies of the paper forms that are signed by party agents. Once NASA realized that Kenyatta had built up a commanding lead and that the forms would take time to come through, it began to demand that the livestream be brought down. This contravened the very framework that NASA had demanded in the run-up to the poll.
Moreover, ahead of the polls, NASA had stated that it would train and deploy thousands of party agents to collect a parallel set of results. However, overconfidence in the capacity of election technology to protect the poll, combined with recruitment challenges, meant that some polling stations did not have opposition agents while others had agents with relatively low capacity. NASA’s capacity to scrutinize the vote was also hurt by the government’s decision to deport several foreign advisers said to be helping run a parallel vote count to verify the electoral commission’s own figures days before the polls. Allegations of government hypocrisy — Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party is known to have employed the services of a number of foreign advisers — further cemented the resolve of opposition leaders to contest the results.
The intransigence of NASA and the high stakes of the contest make for a dangerous political outlook. NASA has baldly demanded that the electoral commission immediately declare Odinga president. This seems to leave them little room for negotiation if — as seems likely — the electoral commission announces that Kenyatta has won the election. If the polling station forms show no major discrepancies with the initial transmitted results, it seems unlikely that NASA will be able to sustain any legal challenge to the results. Even so, many of its supporters will continue to believe the allegations of rigging — especially if the electoral commission is not seen to take them seriously and resolve them prior to declaring the winner. Otherwise, some Odinga supporters may take to the streets to protest if NASA continues to reject the results.
Meanwhile, the confirmed results of lower-level elections show one clear winner: Deputy President Ruto’s allies have done well, and he looks more likely than ever to be a presidential candidate in 2022.