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Kenyans celebrate 'boring' elections

A widespread and sustained campaign for peaceful elections really seems to have permeated Kenya's political bedrock.
Last modified: 6 Mar 2013 13:53
Photo by AFP

There was something delightfully tedious about Kenya's election day. We spent it in Kisumu in the far west of the country, at the city's biggest sports grounds, where thousands of voters queued in scorching heat to cast their ballot.

When we arrived soon after the polls opened at 6:00am local time, the people at the front of the lines said they had turned up at 1.30am and sat through the night.

It turned out to be a smart move – latecomers (and by that I mean those who were lazy enough to arrive by 5:00am) had to wait up to nine hours to get to the ballot boxes.

And throughout the day, as the lines inched their way across the hot, dusty fields, it was spectacularly routine. People chatted, enterprising businessmen sold water and ice creams, and occasionally, when someone tried to jump the queue, the crowd shouted and jeered.

Quite simply, there has never been an election in Kenya without some sort of violence. It has been a regular feature of the way politics is conducted, though usually either during the campaigns or when the results are announced.

And given the hugely destructive explosion of bloodshed that followed the last elections in 2007, it is hardly surprising that a lot of people thought this time might be no different.

Elections are always seminal moments in the history of any nation, but here, these ones are especially significant. Not only are they the first since the 2007 polls, but they are also the most complicated, the most technical and the most expensive in Kenya's history.

It is also the first real test of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) that replaced the discredited and disbanded Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) responsible for the last vote.

Shadow of ICC

They are also being held in the shadow of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that has indicted one of the two leading candidates Uhuru Kenyatta, and his running mate William Ruto, for allegedly orchestrating part of what is now known as the "PEV" – the post-election violence.

Both men have denied the charges. But political analysts believe that the ICC cases may in fact be giving the pair a boost in the polls, particularly among voters who have come to regard the cases as politically motivated attempts by the international community to interfere in Kenya.

Either way, there is plenty at stake here. So, the way people conducted themselves on polling day was gratifyingly routine. In fact, for many people, it was a very deliberate choice to snub the critics – including many foreign correspondents – by turning out in large numbers and voting peacefully.

At the same time, it was easy to overlook both the breadth and significance of the many changes that have taken place in Kenya since the last elections.

People have vastly more confidence in the new IEBC than they did in the old electoral commission. Reforms to the police and the judiciary mean that there is also more confidence in the integrity of both institutions to do their jobs independently of political interference.

And if the ICC cases have proved good for Kenyatta's electoral appeal, they have also tamped down the appetite for mischief.

Commitment to peace

At the same time, there has been a widespread and sustained campaign for peace that really seems to have permeated the political bedrock here. It is now politically incorrect to say anything that smacks of incitement, or violence, or a willingness to take to the streets.

All that bodes well for the coming days when this country will need all the tolerance it can muster to get through the legal challenges that now seem likely to follow the final results.

As delays in announcing the results stretch into hours and days, speculation piles on top of rumour about why. There is now a dispute over whether the vast number of rejected ballots should be included in the final tallies, or whether they should be left out altogether.

If they were included, they would dilute all the candidates' totals, but significantly, they could depress Kenyatta's total to below the 50 percent he needs to avoid a run-off.

That row raises the sense that this election will be decided not by the will of the people, but by a small group of individuals who will have to adjudicate between the competing legal arguments.

Inevitably then, one side will feel aggrieved, believing that they lost out of partisanship, rather than in a fair and democratic poll.

If that happens, we are likely to see Kenyans' commitment to peace stretched to the limit. The signs are still good, but history urges caution.