The great unknowns of Kenya's elections

Political science is an imprecise discipline at the best of times. But in Kenya, it feels more akin to witchcraft.


    Political science is an imprecise discipline at the best of times. But in Kenya, it feels more akin to witchcraft.

    In most established democracies, astute analysts can have a reasonable stab at predicting the outcome of elections. The regular if well-spaced drum-beat of polls gives anyone who cares to look, a decent set of historical data to work with.

    It's usually possible to check the voting patterns of a particular electorate assess the impact of demographic changes and with the help of some intelligent opinion polling, have a good understanding of the way a country might swing.

    But in Kenya, this election is stacked with so many unknown factors that a witch throwing newt's eyes into a bubbling cauldron might have as good a chance at predicting the outcome as the political scientists.

    Here is a list of new elements that on their own would play havoc with the usual rules of predicting elections. Combined, they make it nigh on impossible.

    New Constitution: In 2010, Kenyans voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution that redesigns a host of national institutions. From the judiciary to the relationship between the executive and the legislature, everything is new. As this is the election that effectively kicks the new institutions into play, it is impossible to know how it might affect people's voting patterns.

    New Tiers of Government: Voters heading to the polls on March 4th will be faced with a bewildering set of choices. Among the new institutions, the constitution establishes a new Senate and county governments. In the past, voters elected members of parliament and the president. This time, they will have to choose local county representatives, county governors, members of parliament, senators, women’s representatives and a president. Nobody is quite sure how this new devolved system of government might affect politics.

    New Electorates: With the new layers of government comes an entirely new set of electorates. Although it is possible to make a crude assessment of voting patterns by studying past ballots, the numbers are so confused that only the bravest analyst would put money on his predictions.

    New Political Parties: One of the most bewildering features of Kenya's political landscape is the speed with which parties form and collapse and politicians bounce between them. Watching them sometimes feels like monitoring a particle accelerator in which atoms are slammed together to form new elements that are so unstable they disintegrate a few nanoseconds later.

    New Political and Ethnic Alliances: Kenyan politics is more about making deals in exchange for blocks of votes, than it is about ideology. That's why neither of the two leading coalitions – Jubilee lead by Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga's CORD – was able to settle on their member parties until barely a month before the final nominations closed. And the coalition's bring together apparently unlikely bedfellows. Jubilee for example, includes leaders of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities – two tribes that fought bitterly in the last elections. Nobody is quite certain how loyal those communities might be to the new alliances.

    The ICC Factor: Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto are both wanted in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The pair have been charged, in separate cases, with crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the violence that followed the last elections. If they win, they will have to face the prospect of diplomatic isolation, personal sanctions and the vexing question of how they might run the country from the dock in a case that could run years. Depending on who's opinion you canvas, the ICC charges might either galvanise supporters keen to show the world that its opinion doesn't count here or drive wavering supporters to alternative candidates. Or both.

    With so many new factors, it is small wonder that pollsters are struggling to reach a consensus on how the country will vote.

    The challenge isn't just for pollsters either. Anyone trying to assess the likely business environment after the elections anyone trying to work out whether and where there might be violence anyone trying to plan for the immediate future is struggling to guess an outcome that might have a better than even chance of being right.

    Follow Al Jazeera's Peter Greste on Twitter: @PeterGreste



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