Kenya 2022: Electoral battlegrounds to watch during polling day

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Kenya 2022: Who will win the great race?

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Monday, 8 August 2022 11:56

A shop owner hold bags depicting presidential candidate Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto in the town of Kibigori
A shop owner hold bags depicting presidential candidates Raila Odinga and William Ruto in the town of Kibigori, Kisumu county, Kenya July 30, 2022. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Kenya's two leading presidential candidates are banking on voter turnout in their respective regional strongholds to win the coveted prize. Final opinion polls show former Prime Minister Raila Odinga pulling ahead of Deputy President William Ruto, but a run-off — the first in the nation's history — looms as a possibility. Which regions will determine the big race?

Kenyan law bars polling firms from publishing election surveys within five days of the vote. In keeping with the deadline, three leading Kenyan pollsters published results on 2 August and 3 August. Research firm Trends and Insights for Africa (TIFA) showed Raila ahead of Ruto with 49% support versus Ruto’s 41%— the widest gap for Raila in four months of polling.

A day earlier, Infotrak Research and Ipsos had released poll results showing similar patterns. On average, Raila led by 48.3% versus Ruto’s 41.3%.

For an outright win, presidential candidates must receive more than half of the national vote, including at least 25% of votes in not less than 24 out of the country’s 47 counties.

Regional contest

Even though the 2022 presidential contest has centred on national concerns about the economy, cost of living and ease of doing business, regional blocs have been key to both campaigns.

Raila has dominated Ruto in six polling zones out of nine: Nyanza, Nairobi, Coast, Lower Eastern (Ukambani), Northern Kenya and the western regions. Meanwhile, Ruto is ahead in Mt. Kenya and North Rift, leaving only the South Rift zone as a toss-up.

The bigger challenge now is how the undecided voters vote

Infotrak Research has consistently shown Raila with a lead advantage in 21 counties against Ruto’s 16 counties, leaving 10 battleground counties.

Analysis of the three pollsters show a neck-and-neck contest between Raila and Ruto in their race to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Battlegrounds

In a July poll, Infotrak Research listed 10 battleground counties: Mombasa, Tana River, Marsabit, Isiolo, Samburu, Nakuru, Narok, Bungoma, Trans Nzoia and Vihiga. At the time, none of the candidates had secured more than 50% support in those areas. In 2017, most of these battleground counties backed Raila.

In its final poll, however, Infotrak reported that the list had decreased by two counties after Mombasa and Vihiga reported 55% and 60% popularity for Raila.

“What Raila needs to win is to first keep his strongholds and gain up to 30% in Mt. Kenya,” says David Ndii, an economist. “If Ruto lost ground from Mt. Kenya, he needs to gain ground in Raila’s strongholds.”

Ndii is the head of policy and programmes in Ruto’s presidential campaign. He previously supported Raila in 2013 and 2017, before falling out with the former prime minister.

Samuel Muthoka, a director at Ipsos says: “The bigger challenge now is how the undecided voters vote.”

According to TIFA, by 3 August, the number of undecided voters had fallen to just over 7% from 16% in April. When TIFA ignored undecided voters, Raila’s popularity rose to 53% against Ruto’s 45%.

Mountainous task

The race now is down to two key factors – voter turnout and how much Raila and Ruto can eat into each other’s strongholds.

“[…] the two targets of final days’ campaigning is to maximise turnout in your strongholds,” says Tom Wolf, a lead researcher at TIFA. “You may [also] want to invest your final days in places where the vote basket is highest.”

Ruto scheduled his final pitch in parts of his home ground of North Rift and his stronghold of Mt. Kenya, along with massive rallies in Mombasa and Nairobi, both cosmopolitan cities with plenty of voters.

Even a 2% to 3% gain could easily determine the election

Raila, on the other hand, equally spent his final days of the campaign in his regional strongholds of Nyanza and Coast, with visits to Mt. Kenya’s Kiambu County.

“Number one of focus must obviously be in the mountain,” Wolf says. “Even though Ruto enjoys massive support [there], it doesn’t mean that an extra day there for Odinga and [vice presidential nominee Martha] Karua can’t yield its own benefits. Even a 2% to 3% gain could easily determine the election.”

Raila has a 55% popularity rating in Mombasa, according to Infotrak findings, compared to Ruto’s 31%. That translates to almost 200,000 more votes for Raila.

Ruto leads in the Mt. Kenya region with 66% (according to Infotrak), while Raila polled at only 24%. However, he had a better rating in Kiambu County, with 27%. Kiambu has over 1.27 million registered voters, giving him an edge of 340,000 votes there.

Choice of words

To rally voters to turn out on 9 August, Ruto has been repeating his criticism of President Kenyatta for backing his former rival Raila instead of his own deputy. He has even accused the president of seeking to harm him.

“Now you are threatening me, what will you do to me?” Ruto said at a rally in Kapsabet town, Nandi County, his political backyard. “As long as you don’t kill my children, let us respect each other.”

Responding to his deputy on 31 July, Kenyatta said: “There is no need to tell people that I want to kill you… You have all been insulting me for three years and no one has bothered you. Now when I am about to hand over [power] you claim that I have the time to pursue you?”

In the days after, the president took Raila’s campaign to Nyanza in a final sprint to commission some of his legacy projects in the region, including a new ship built by members of the military, which he initiated in the months after his political truce with Raila.

“You all agree that baba [Raila] is the path to the future. Unfortunately most of you just say it by mouth, but on [the] day of voting you have other engagements,” Uhuru told a roadside meeting in Kisumu.

In 2017, Kenyatta’s Mt. Kenya backyard had the highest voter turnout with 86%, versus a national average of 77%. Raila’s strongholds of Western, Nyanza and the Coast reported lower turnout rates of 75%, 80% and 68%, respectively. That same year, Ruto’s backyard voted for Kenyatta with a turnout of 79%.

In late July this year, Ruto challenged his home county of Uasin Gishu to get out their vote. “Last election we got 86% and 14% did not vote,” he said. “This year we want 100% voter turnout.”

Election data however shows that in Uasin Gishu County only 76% turned out to vote in 2017, a rate lower than the national average.

Weighting the numbers

Even though Ruto appears to perform unusually better at the Coast compared to his 2017 ticket with Kenyatta, some of those counties have too few voters to offset Raila’s inroads in Mt. Kenya.

In Isiolo, for example, the last Infotrak pre-election poll showed Raila trailing Ruto – 42% to 50% – but the county only has 89,000 registered voters.

“Turnout favours the person whose stronghold it is. A high voter turnout in Mt. Kenya will favour Ruto,” Ndii says.

Ruto may need voter support similar to what Uhuru got in 2017 in the Mt. Kenya region, which appears out of reach.

Raila however faces a major setback in his weakening grip on Bungoma County in Western Kenya, one of his strongholds in 2013 and 2017. During the last election, Raila secured 68% of the vote there against Uhuru’s 30%. Today, he and Ruto are tied at 43% support from the county’s 646,000 voters.

“Shame on you, shame on you people of Bungoma,” Raila told Bungoma residents in late July, complaining of their apparent abandonment.

The changing tide has been impacted by the alliance between Ruto, Musalia Mudavadi of the Amani National Congress (ANC) and Ford Kenya leader Moses Wetangula, the senator from Bungoma.

Both Mudavadi and Wetangula backed Raila’s bid in 2017, but fell out in 2018 after Wetangula was dethroned from a senate leadership position, which Raila reassigned to one of his closest allies, James Orengo, the outgoing senator of Siaya, Raila’s home county.

Mudavadi and Wetangula have been offered 30% of government positions by Ruto should they deliver 70% of the vote from Western region to his side. Even though the polls suggest it may be out of reach, the region remains a battleground for each candidate.

Dirty tricks?

Days before the election, Ruto’s campaign complained of undue interference by the state. Ruto has accused President Kenyatta’s office of using government machinery to mobilise voters for Raila.

In the first week of August, eight university students in Eldoret were arrested and arraigned for allegedly spreading fear messages contained in leaflets to non-native communities in Uasin Gishu, Ruto’s home county. Interior minister Fred Matiang’i however insisted that “none of those people are employees of the president”.

“Recently, the president met people in Nakuru and what happened is not good for this country,” Ruto said at a 4 August press conference. “What is emerging from those meetings are the leaflets you see.”

It is very shameful for a deputy president to even imagine that we were in Nakuru planning anything like he alleges

Interior Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho however exonerated the ministry.

“It is very shameful for a deputy president to even imagine that we were in Nakuru planning anything like he alleges,” Kibicho said.

Ruto however believes the leaflets are connected to government efforts to boost Raila’s chances. “These leaflets are not innocent. There are people in the state behind this. [They are] meant to create panic amongst citizens so that they don’t come out to vote,” Ruto said.

“We do not need the chiefs, assistant chiefs or [the government] administration to win this election,” Raila said in his backyard of Kisumu on 4 August. “We will win this election through the vote of [the] people of Kenya.”

The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), a government agency tasked with reducing inter-ethnic conflict, is monitoring 23 counties that it classifies as likely to experience election related tensions. These include Uasin Gishu, Nairobi, Nakuru, Kericho, Kisumu and Mombasa counties.

“If we have people who can easily be manipulated and can be organised to be violent and actually [become] violent, this is the biggest problem that we have,” NCIC chair Samuel Kobia said in May.

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