President Uhuru Kenyatta has won two elections this year, but is still struggling to prove his legitimacy.
In the first election, contested on 8 August, he received 54% of the vote according to the country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). However, that result was later nullified by the Supreme Court on the basis of significant procedural failures, necessitating a “fresh” election within 60 days.
In that contest, fought on 26 October, Kenyatta won again, this time securing over 98% of the vote. But despite securing a landslide victory, his political authority has once again been brought into question.
The reason for Kenyatta’s vast majority was that his main rival, Raila Odinga, pulled out of the contest in advance. While Odinga’s name remained on the ballot paper, the opposition leader asked his supporters to stay at home, arguing that the election had no prospect of being more free and fair than the first.
Although some criticised Odinga for bringing a petition to the Supreme Court demanding a fresh election and then failing to contest it, this strategy was largely successful: supporters of his National Super Alliance (NASA) largely stayed at home, resulting in a significantly lower turnout of 39%, less than half that of the first poll (80%). In a small number of places, most notably in Odinga’s Nyanza heartlands, protests by opposition supporters prevented polling stations from being opened at all.
Odinga’s complaints were dismissed by government leaders who alleged that his decision not to contest was a desperate attempt to save face, motivated by the knowledge that he was destined for defeat. This was backed up by a number of defections of his former allies to the ruling party, including Odinga’s point-person in the vote rich Rift Valley region, Isaac Ruto.
However, the opposition’s concerns were leant credibility by the decision of one of the IEBC Commissioners, Roselyn Akombe, to resign citing a lack of progress towards improving the electoral process. Having fled to the United States, Akome gave a series of interviews in which she argued that the political context in Kenya would not allow for a credible poll.
These statements were then followed by a worrying press conference held by the Chair of the Commission, Wafula Chebukati, who admitted that political interference within the IEBC had blocked a number of important reforms. In the days that followed, rumours spread that Chebukati was about to resign, making it impossible to hold the poll.
In the event, this did not happen, but the damage to the credibility of the Commission had been done.
Because the election of 26 October did not take place in all in all 290 constituencies – as required by the constitution – and as a result of the serious doubts about the competence and neutrality of the IEBC, Kenyatta’s victory has already been called into question by the opposition. And while Odinga has said they he will not be bringing another petition – arguing that the whole process has lost credibility – others already have.
Consequently, Kenya is heading back to the Supreme Court.
Thus, a president who has won two elections, one with a 98% majority, feels forced to defend himself. Most notably, Kenyatta used his acceptance speech to justify his position by reinterpreting the Supreme Court’s judgement to suit his own interests, arguing that:
“The Court did not Challenge my overwhelming mandate of 54%. The numbers were NEVER questioned. What the Court questioned was the process of declaring my victory. And because the court did not question my victory, they by extension, validated my 54% numbers. This was a Political Paradox.”
He also went to great lengths to depict voter turn out on 26 October as a demonstration of his popularity, rather than as a reason to question his legitimacy. Ignoring the drop off in political participation in many parts of the country, the president stated that:
“Here is the truth as recorded in our books. On August 8th, 15million Kenyans came out to vote. Of these 8.4 million Kenyans voted for me [The number is actually 8.2 million]. On October 26th, 90% of the same voters came out to support my Bid.”
These claims will resonate with Kenyatta’s supporters, but are likely to fall on deaf ears in opposition areas. For their part, the Courts now face another difficult decision. It is clear now that nullifying the result of the vote on 8 August did little to resolve the country’s political crisis; but it will be hard to make the argument that the “repeat” election represented a significant improvement than the first.