Cord leader Raila Odinga addresses the media at Serena Hotel in Nairobi on March 21, 2016. Mr Odinga said the Opposition would not go to the elections next year with the electoral commission as currently constituted. PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP
In the 2013 General Election he trailed Uhuru Kenyatta by about 7 per cent of the vote.
The controversy over the signatures collected by the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (Cord) in a bid to force constitutional referendum highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the Opposition.
On the one hand, it is impressive that Cord can mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to join the Okoa Kenya campaign. On the other, the process of collecting signatures was not as organised as it should have been, which has created the opportunity for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to claim that more than a third of the 1.4 million names were invalid.
Whether or not this was a fair ruling, it meant that the petition fell short of the one million signatures it needed. This result is a familiar one for many long-term supporters of Raila Odinga: Defeat has been snatched from the jaws of victory.
In a column a couple of months ago I suggested that precisely this combination of opposition disorganisation and ruling party manipulation meant that it was very unlikely that Mr Odinga would win the elections scheduled for 2017.
Some of my Kenyan friends and colleagues were upset by the article, including columnists and researchers that I greatly admire such as Godwin Murunga. They felt that it overestimated both the gains made by the Jubilee Alliance since 2013 and the difficulties faced by the Opposition.
The conversations that I had on twitter and Facebook around that time got me thinking: Had I fallen into the trap of believing the government’s propaganda? Was there a way that Mr Odinga could win the 2017 elections, after all? Having mulled this over for a few weeks, I can now see a way for the Opposition to unseat the Jubilee Alliance. The key to such a victory will be to effectively harness the new system of devolved government.
The reasons that I thought it was unlikely that Mr Odinga could win the next election were fairly straightforward. In the 2013 General Election he trailed Uhuru Kenyatta by about 7 per cent of the vote.
MOBILISED MORE PEOPLE
There are two possible explanations for this. Either Mr Kenyatta ran a better organised and funded campaign, and so mobilised more people, or the election was rigged. Either way, the implication is the same: Only a much more effective opposition campaign has any chance of winning in 2017.
If Mr Odinga lost because his campaign was less energetic than that of 2007 and he failed to inspire enough of his supporters to register and vote, the only remedy will be a better and more organised campaign that can ensure a higher turnout in his heartlands.
Similarly, if he lost because votes were illegally added to Mr Kenyatta’s total during the tallying phase, then the only remedy will be to build a broader and deeper political structure that can ensure that party agents are present in every polling station to detect fraud. Either way, the challenge is to build a stronger political machine.
The problem was that at the time I was writing I did not see many signs that Cord was building a more effective and internally democratic set of coalition (or party) structures. My feeling was that this would make it difficult for Mr Odinga to perform much better in 2017 than he did in 2013, especially given the fact that since the end of the power sharing government senior Cord leaders have lacked a steady source of funds.
At the same time, the efforts of Jubilee Alliance leaders to penetrate into the former Coast and Western provinces in a bid to erode Mr Odinga’s electoral superiority there suggested that, in these areas at least, Cord might struggle to retain the votes it won in 2013.
This point received particular criticism from some interlocutors, who argued that lavishing attention and money on historically marginalised communities would not be enough for Mr Kenyatta to win these areas. This is a good point, as the depth of feeling and the strength of local political networks is precisely why national parties have struggled to exert dominance in either part of the country over the last 20 years.
However, it is important to note that I was not claiming that the Jubilee Alliance would perform better than Cord in these areas. I was suggesting that it might do relatively better than last time. Even an improvement of a few percentage points for Mr Kenyatta would make life difficult for Mr Odinga. Keep in mind that the potential for election rigging means Mr Odinga cannot rely on simply winning the election — he needs to win big.
Only this will prevent a repeat of the 2007 election. Winning big is especially difficult when you are faced with an established president; one who enjoys strong advantages of incumbency and great personal wealth.
Since the reintroduction of multi-party elections in Africa, sitting presidents have won 85 per cent of the elections they have contested. Against those odds, even a small erosion of the opposition’s support base can have a fatal impact on their electoral chances.
So how can Mr Odinga win in 2017? To some extent, Cord leaders have begun to respond more effectively to the challenges that they face, boosting their prospects.
The coalition has started to place a much higher emphasis on voter registration, and the Okoa Kenya campaign has enabled them to flex political muscles, mobilising support across the country. At the same time, the rise of Mr Hassan Joho within Cord provides Mr Odinga with a strong base from which to resist President Kenyatta’s attempts to rally support at the Coast — although it is important to keep in mind that Joho also has his detractors and won less than half of the votes cast in the Coast in the last election.
But on its own this is unlikely to be enough. The signatures debacle — however much it may have been manipulated by the government — suggests that when it comes to grassroots organisation, Cord still has some way to go. This is significant, because it is the strength of party networks that will determine whether Mr Odinga can compete with Mr Kenyatta’s vast election resources, and it is an effective network of party agents — and not election technology — that will determine whether rigging is possible.
So what is the solution? The crucial element that I underestimated in my previous column was the impact of the new system of devolution. In the past, the government has usually been able to out-mobilise the opposition in large part because it could use its control of the state to effectively campaign across the country. By contrast, opposition parties have often struggled to campaign effectively outside of their homelands.
The system of decentralisation introduced under the 2010 Constitution radically changes this picture because it means that in about half of the country the state is in the hands of the opposition, not the government.
In the 2013 polls, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) won 16 governorships, eight more than Kenyatta’s The National Alliance, while the two parties won the same number of senators (11). At the same time, ODM secured 377 county assembly members – the most of any party. As all Kenyans know, these victories were not only in places like Nyanza, but also in areas such as Nairobi and Mombasa.
These candidates, and the government resources that they control, represent Mr Odinga’s best chance of making it to State House — if he can ensure their loyalty.
Under the Constitution governors are not permitted to utilise the resources at their disposal for party political ends. But many will ignore this and use county funds to promote their own political interests.
Moreover, even if county leaders wish to abide by the law, there are a number of things that they can do to change the electoral calculus, such as promote voter registration. Indeed, the constitutional requirement for county governments to foster political participation could even be interpreted as implying that local officials have a duty to remind citizens of their democratic rights and obligations.
If they do so, county leaders will effectively be campaigning for themselves and the presidential candidate of their party at the same time.
If a governor in Nyanza gets thousands more voters to register and cast their ballots in the county elections, they are likely to also cast a vote for Odinga in the national contest while they are in the polling station.
Similarly, if candidates for governor establish networks of party agents to monitor the vote, they will be able to simultaneously record information about the presidential poll.
In this way, the presence of county level leaders can substitute for a party structure. In turn, this presents Mr Odinga with a great opportunity to close the “registration gap”. At every election that I have observed in Kenya, pro-Odinga areas, such as Nyanza, have registered at significantly lower rates than pro-Kenyatta area such as Central. If decentralisation reduces the advantage that the government has historically enjoyed, it could be a game changer.
But all this only works if Mr Odinga can keep county level leaders on his side. This means the key battle in the coming months will be the one for the hearts and minds (and wallets) of Kenya’s 47 governors.
We know that many of those who were elected under the Cord banner in 2013 have had their heads turned by the advances of the Jubilee Alliance, and may not support Mr Odinga’s campaign this time round.
The more governors align with Jubilee — publicly or silently — the greater the risk that devolution will empower the government rather than the Opposition. This brings us back to internal party organisation.
Each governor will make their own calculation based on the situation that they face in their county, but they will be far more likely to back Mr Odinga if the Opposition looks like a viable government-in-waiting, and if the Cord leadership proves that it is willing to listen and respond to their voices and concerns.
Dr Nic Cheeseman teaches African politics at Oxford University, @fromagehomme