Not business as usual: What the low turnout reveals about Kenyans and their leaders

.Some of the voters who turned up at Kiritiri Primary School, Mbeere South constituency, Embu County

Some of the voters who turned up at Kiritiri Primary School, Mbeere South constituency, Embu County on August 9, 2022. Most areas experienced low voter turnout.
 

Photo credit: Charles Wanyoro | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Mt Kenya voters virtually stayed at home, despite the fact that during the campaigns they showed strong support for the deputy president.
  • So important was the Mountain that each one of the four tickets in the race had a candidate from the region.
  • It's the stuff of legends that Raila and Ruto, Kenya’s famed political mobilisers, have failed to get voters out.


Kenya’s just-ended voting in the 2022 General Election could easily turn out to be one of the lowest in the country’s history, raising the difficult question of what happened to the enthusiasm seen in the campaigns.

The political class, led by the outgoing deputy president, Dr William Ruto, and his nemesis Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party, took the country through a four-and-a-half-year heated campaign period, defined by massive public rallies, where harsh messages were exchanged.

The messages dwelt mostly on hostile assessments of each other’s character.

There were incessant mutual imputations of improper political and economic motives.

They accused each other of being driven by power hunger and a search for self-aggrandizement.

Tens of thousands of eager citizens turned up to cheer them on, promising by show of hands that they would vote for them in the August 9 elections.

What happened?

It turns out that all these may have been spurious promises. What happened?

Initial figures from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission indicated that of the nearly 22 million registered voters, only 12.6 million had turned out to vote, by 5.00 pm, when the voting exercise was supposed to be complete.

This accounts for just about 56.1per cent. The figure could rise up to about 59 per cent.

This compares poorly to 2017 when a record 79 per cent of the registered 19,611,423 voted.

It is expected that the numbers could go slightly higher, when voting takes place in the next few days, in three constituencies in which elections did not take place due to technical or security-related factors.

The impact, however, is expected to be insignificant.

Mt Kenya factor

A number of explanations are possible. First is the Mt Kenya factor. This is the first time in Kenya’s history when the Mt Kenya region did not have a major contender for the highest office.

Lawyer and priest David Mwaure Waihiga’s candidature was lowly rated, and his compatriots from the Mountain did not take him seriously.

Even in opinion polls, he did poorly, hardly reaching the one per cent mark in any one poll.

Mt Kenya voters virtually stayed at home, despite the fact that during the campaigns they showed strong support for the deputy president. They thronged his public rallies and vowed to vote for him.

So important was the Mountain that each one of the four tickets in the race had a candidate from the region.

All the running mates were from the Mountain, with the Waihiga ticket fielding both the president and his deputy from Mt Kenya.

It is a statement of the considered insignificance of these candidatures that the Mountain displayed uncharacteristic apathy in this poll.

Traditionally, the Mountain has had as high as 90 per cent voter turnout.

Yet, if the presidential candidates explain what happened in the Mountain, it does not explain what happened in other parts of the country.

Kenya’s two foremost mobilisers have not converted the masses who attend their rallies into voters.

Kenyans, especially in the Mountain, tend to vote against someone or something.

In 2013, the massive voters in the Mountain and the Rift Valley voted against the indictment of Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In converse were those who cast against Uhuru and Ruto for their then open animus against Odinga.

Their accusations that he was responsible for their indictment did not go down well with Odinga’s supporters.

While the competition between Odinga and Ruto has been caustic, it has not taken the competition to the same levels as did the ICC matter.

Mobilisation

But if the presidential candidates have not sufficiently mobilised voters, those running for the remaining five positions of National Assembly, Governor, Senate, Woman County Representatives and County Assembly have not done any better.

This speaks to the reality that it is the presidency that attracts voters, and not the other positions.

Of great significance too, is the role of the social media-happy middle class.

This class has actively cheered on Raila and Ruto, always at pains to show why it is one and not the other who will be Kenya’s fifth president.

While the demographics have not been disaggregated yet, the optics of the queues in many parts of the country showed a keen absence of the middle class.

Youthful voters also seem to have stayed away, in the main. Would it seem that the campaigns did not speak to these two classes?

In the end, this appears to have been an election that did not give the electorate much to choose from.

One pundit said earlier in the year that the choice would end up being whether Kenyans wanted to be eaten by a wolf, or a jackal.

It appears they have not wanted to be eaten by either. Those who stayed away, however, might just end up deciding Kenya’s fifth president, by default.

It's the stuff of legends that Raila and Ruto, Kenya’s famed political mobilisers, have failed to get voters out.

Indeed, as many Kenyans are, this election has shown that things are always different on the ground.

Perhaps the cantankerous catfights between the President and his deputy numbed Kenya.

Perhaps many despaired in the fog of Jubilee’s litany of unmet promises. Or Raila and Ruto offered two sides of the same coin.

Regardless of the reason, a major tectonic shift has hit our politics, and it’s no longer business as usual going forward.

Dr Galava, a former managing editor with the ‘Nation’, is a media and policy researcher. [email protected]

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