How Kenya’s Election Went From Fraud to Hope to Sham

A polling station in Gatundu, Kenya, on Thursday. Calls for a boycott by the leader of the opposition coalition and fears of violence kept many voters away. Credit Kabir Dhanji/European Pressphoto Agency

Kenya held a rerun of its presidential election on Thursday, and Uhuru Kenyatta, the incumbent, will undoubtedly get the most votes. Under the circumstances, though, that hardly is a crowning achievement.

hursday’s vote was supposed to be a corrective for the election held in August, which was invalidated by the Supreme Court after the opposition leader Raila Odinga called it fraudulent and questioned its constitutionality. But earlier this month, citing the failure to fix the systematic flaws he had denounced, Mr. Odinga announced that he was withdrawing from the latest race and called on his supporters to boycott the voting on Thursday. (His name was nonetheless kept on the ballot.)

According to preliminary counts, voter turnout was incredibly low across the country. The national election commission initially estimated the overall participation rate at about 48 percent, compared with 79 percent in August. But the commission’s chairman has since tweeted statistics suggesting the figure may be closer to 34 percent. Some 13 percent of polling stations didn’t even communicate with the national election center.

In some constituencies where Mr. Odinga and the opposition coalition were favored, election monitors from civil-society groups reported turnout under one percent. In the Bangladesh slum of the coastal city of Mombasa, an opposition stronghold, the polling station was smeared with excrement, and residents blocked access even as the police tried furiously to gain entry. The election commission postponed voting until Saturday in four of the country’s 47 counties because ballots couldn’t be brought to the stations or officials stayed away, fearing for their safety.

As of Friday morning, at least four people were reported to have been killed, and several dozen injured, in clashes involving protesters or the police.

A flawed election begets a controversial rerun begets a colossal sham — that’s the story of this presidential race. And now Kenya is in an even murkier, and more dangerous, situation than it was.

The Supreme Court’s ruling annulling the August election was historic — the first of its kind in Africa. It was widely hailed as a testament to the court’s integrity and independence, proof that checks and balances were working in Kenya and a harbinger that democracy here was set to improve still. But then Mr. Kenyatta and his supporters went on the attack.

The president promptly hurled abuses at the chief justice, David Maraga, and his colleagues on the bench, calling them “thugs.” “Now I am no longer the president-elect. I am the serving president,” Mr. Kenyatta also said just days after the Supreme Court ruling. “Maraga should know that he is now dealing with the serving president.”

The ruling party then passed amendments to the election law — in parliamentary sessions boycotted by the opposition — that, among other things, raise the evidentiary bar for challenging election results and make it almost impossible to overturn them, no matter how flawed.

And then on Oct. 25, Wednesday, the same Supreme Court made history again — by unmaking it.

The court was supposed to rule on a petition to postpone the do-over election set for Thursday on grounds that its fairness could not be guaranteed. But only two of the seven judges turned up. One of the absentees was out of the country seeking medical care; the others only let it be known that they were somehow indisposed. Without a quorum on the bench, the case was delayed — and the rerun would not be. The election was fundamentally flawed before the voting even began.

The stakes are incredibly high. Elections in Kenya are not a civil political competition; they are an all-out contest for power and resources, often between political parties and groups organized by ethnicity. Because there are few peaceful and participatory ways of addressing ethnic tensions in nonelection years here, elections often devolve into an outlet for expressing pent-up frustrations.

The state is a major provider of jobs and wealth, and so being left out of government can mean being marginalized, not only politically, but also economically. Since Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963, the presidency has been held by only two communities — the Kikuyu, represented by Mr. Kenyatta, and the Kalenjin, represented by William Ruto — which together make up about one-third of Kenya’s total population. (Mr. Odinga is Luo.)

The Kenyatta government already has a tendency to be defiant and highhanded, and it has been given reason to believe that, despite this latest election fiasco, it will not be isolated internationally. The U.S. embassy and the European Union mission in Nairobi, for example, have played a less than positive role, appearing to side with the government and insisting that any election, no matter how bad, is better than none.

This view is dangerously wrong, of course, as we Kenyans well remember from the 2007 presidential election — when Mr. Odinga seemed to be robbed of a victory and the country instantly erupted in lethal protests.

Thankfully, Mr. Odinga has eschewed the use of violence so far. This week he transformed the opposition coalition into the National Resistance Movement, vowing to engage in civil disobedience. But we can be certain that any protests and other disruptions will make the country ungovernable in the coming weeks. And we should fear that the government will respond excessively, viciously and brutally, as it has done in the past.

Maina Kiai, a Kenyan human rights lawyer, served as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association in 2011–17.

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