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Five Simple Points To Take Away From The 2013 Kenyan Elections

By Jeffrey Paller
The original version of this article appeared in African Arguments

Politics is more than elections

A few hours before an official winner was declared in Kenya's election, New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman tweeted: "Raila REJECTS Kenyatta victory in Kenya election. A 2007 type scenario could be shaping up. See story at" This rhetoric is not unique: Throughout the week after the vote the media warned of a 2007-like crisis. But what this election has demonstrated is that comparing elections without looking at the process and politics of what happens between obscures more than it explains.

Analysts, journalists and even political scientists tend to treat elections as fixed events. Elections are compared to other elections; electoral violence is compared to previous instances of electoral violence; and all other institutional progress (and digression) is swept aside. But in new democracies a lot happens between elections, both good and bad. Power arrangements are re-shaped, societal transformations occur, and political institutions are strengthened and weakened. In Kenya, there is a new constitution; there are new leading candidates; there is a new electoral commission; there is an integrated international community; there is a stronger and more ubiquitous press; there is a new national land policy.

There is one very simple point to be made: it takes a lot for a neighbor to kill his neighbor. Elections, and even disputed ones, do not provide the incentive to kill. They simply provide the context for a host of other factors to coalesce. Elections do not take place in a political vacuum.

It's the campaign, stupid

Ethnic arrangements shape the electoral terrain. Programmatic and identity concerns influence voting behavior. But campaigns win elections. According to Ken Opalo's weblog, Kenyatta's strongholds registered over 87 percent turnout; Odinga's registered 78 percent.

Kenyatta ran a well-oiled machine. This high turnout won him the elections. His campaign was impressive. TNA offices sprang up all over the country. Huge rallies inspired confidence that he could put on an impressive show. His campaign message offered hope and optimism: "I Believe." In the middle of his pre-election rally at Uhuru Park, a friend turned to me and said, "If he runs the country like this, I would vote for him."

Kenyatta was partnered with the best campaigners in the country. William Ruto is one of the most charismatic figures in Kenya; Mike Sonko's version of hip-populism spans tribe and excites the youth. Being the richest man in Kenyaundoubtedly also helped: Kenyatta was able to infuse huge sums of cash into his campaign in a very short time.

On the other hand, Odinga let down his core supporters by trying to push through six-piece voting arrangements. His campaign strategy relied on painting the opponents as international pariahs unable to govern the country from the ICC, rather than inspiring confidence in his own abilities to lead the country. Often, he seemed exhausted and out of touch. A dissertation needs to be written about what strategies work in African electoral campaigns. Similarly, why do Africans turn out to vote? A deep analysis of the 2013 Kenyan election is a good place to start.

The future is local

As political institutions strengthen across young African democracies, an interesting arena of politics will be at the local level. Kenyans anxiously watched results pour in from the races of county representatives, governors, and senators. As one former government worker told me, "I needed to see where across this country there are people I can work with. Where real reforms can be made so we can improve this country."

Some analysts worry that Kenya will descend into decentralized majimboism; others worry that the country will develop unevenly like Nigeria. But the fact of the matter is that local political development in Kenya is unknown, and will be a fascinating area of research in years to come.

To continue reading the next two points to be taken away from the Kenyan elections, read the original article at the African Arguments site here.

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The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more