Kenyan elections tend to follow a particular script. Voters start lining up outside polling stations in the dead of the night on election day. After a day of largely peaceful voting, characterised by long queues and widespread failure of voter identification technology, controversies, tensions and violence attend to the counting of ballots, tallying of those counts and declaration of winners. Numerous court challenges follow, with the media doing little more than regurgitating the official narratives and numbers that have caused the controversy in the first place. A deeply traumatised, battered, disillusioned and polarised public is left to lick its wounds.
This year, though, that script (at least so far) looked to have been abandoned. While the queues formed early on election day as normal, within hours, many of the polling stations were empty as it appears that 30 percent of the electorate stayed home. The body managing the election, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), at first seemed to be its usual bumbling, hapless self, with early reports of failure of voter identification kits, misplaced and misprinted ballot papers. However, it soon emerged that, though serious, these were isolated problems. Voting largely proceeded smoothly and the tech actually worked.
Further surprises came during the night as the IEBC staff at the polling stations counted the votes and uploaded the numbers onto a publicly available portal without a fuss. Media houses started to tally them up independently with (gasp!) the encouragement of the IEBC! By the second day, it was being described as the most boring election Kenya has had. There was little tension in the air, or incitement from our famously hot-headed and unburdened-by-conscience politicians as, rather than dash off to court to stop the count, those who had lost began to concede to winners. It has been, in many ways, a very un-Kenyan election and those of us who have forged careers pointing out the deficiencies of the system have suddenly, and happily, found themselves with very little to say.
It is still a little too early to start popping the champagne but undeniably, this is a huge leap forward for a country that just 15 years ago nearly collapsed in a frenzy of bloodletting over yet another stolen election. Since then, beginning with the adoption of a new constitution in 2010, Kenya has been slowly and purposefully reinventing itself and its democracy. Much of the relatively quiet progress becomes starkly visible, perhaps unsurprisingly, at election time – the historic annulment of the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2017 was the culmination of seven years of reform that had seen an increasingly assertive judiciary.
Today the IEBC is another institution that the constitution has breathed new life into. In contrast to the regrettable opacity that characterised its preparations for this election, its commitment to transparency since has been stellar. And for that, Kenyans have the tenacity of civil society activists to thank.
In 2017, in a constitutional petition filed against the IEBC by three activists – Maina Kiai, Khelef Khalifa, and Tirop Kitur – the year before, the High Court found that the results of the presidential election as declared at polling stations and tallied at the constituency tallying centres were final and could not be altered at the IEBC headquarters. It is one of the most consequential rulings on Kenyan election law and is what has opened the door for the IEBC to post scans of the forms containing the results from those stations on its website. It is from these 46,229 forms that anyone can now access, that the media and political outfits are doing their tallies.
This radical honesty on the part of the IEBC seems to have caught the media by surprise, accustomed as they were to merely repeating official tallies, and they have struggled to cope with the avalanche of documents. This has created opportunities for mischief for politicians and political hacks who have, in the fashion of former US President Donald Trump, been declaring on social media their belief, unsupported by any published tallies, that their favourite candidate has won. Still, while this has not been a perfect election, so far it has certainly not degenerated into an American one.
Much has been made about the relatively low voter turnout by those used to over a decade of turnouts exceeding 80 percent. But, as I noted in a previous piece, this is a reversion to a pre-2010 scenario where turnout at elections never exceeded 70 percent. If it signals that the youth are abandoning the political rituals of their parents and opting for other, more effective modes of engagement with governance in the years in between elections, then it would be welcome. Elections need not be do-or-die affairs. A boring election may in fact be just the thing Kenya needs.