On 9 August, George Ochieng, an election observer, visited polling stations in Nairobi expecting to see high voter turnout in what had been dubbed as one of the most competitive polls in the country’s history.
“I was shocked to find election officials idling in some polling stations waiting for voters to come and cast their ballots. This was a real shocker,” says Ochieng.
His colleague Clement Kutswa witnessed the same scenes in Kiambu and the neighbouring Muranga county.
“I was expecting long queues in the two counties [that are] known for high voter turnout, but for the first time in so many years I was shocked to find some polling stations having less than 20 people,” says Kutswa.
It might be the issue of not wanting either of the two leading presidential candidates.
Unlike past elections when bars and restaurants in the Mount Kenya region were ordered to close to encourage turnout, this time round it was up to the owners to make the decision.
The low voter turnout was not only witnessed in Nairobi, Kiambu and Muranga, but also replicated in the Kenya’s other 44 counties.
Huge crowds at rallies
During the campaigns, Ruto and Odinga pulled in large crowds – mainly youth – who cheered on the two leading contenders as they tore into each other.
At every stop, their supporters would promise – by a show of hands – to turn out en masse to vote for them.
However, according to Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Wafula Chebukati, voter turnout in this year’s general election stands at 65.4%.
Chebukati clarified that the figure, which represents 14,164,561 voters, will go up once the commission includes those who voted through the manual register.
Still, political analysts have projected that the final figure will be around 68% – one of the lowest in Kenya’s history.
“Even if the commission includes those who voted through the manual register, it is highly likely that the final figure will be below 70%,” says John Charo, a political analyst.
When the late president Mwai Kibaki sought re-election in 2007, voter turnout was at 70%. During the 2010 referendum when Kenyans approved a new constitution, the country recorded a 72% turnout.
Kenya recorded its highest voter turnout in 2013 – at 86% – in an election influenced by the International Criminal Court (ICC) cases against Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto. They had been charged with crimes against humanity for alleged involvement in the 2007 post-election violence. The two cases, however, collapsed.
In 2017, when President Kenyatta was then seeking re-election, the country recorded 78% voter turnout.
Low voter registration
Five years later, the 2022 election begs the question: Why was there a low voter turnout despite high-octane campaigns by the Azimio La Umoja coalition and the Kenya Kwanza alliance?
Charo, the political analyst, says the signs were already on the wall when the IEBC failed to meet its target for registering new voters early this year.
“The electoral body had placed a target of 4.5 million, but only managed to register a paltry 1.03 million voters. That was a sure sign of voter apathy,” he says.
Professor Winnie Mitula from the University of Nairobi is particularly concerned about the low voter turnout in Mount Kenya. She says it is unusual since the region is known for its voting power.
“It might be the issue of not wanting either of the two leading presidential candidates. In fact, some voters from the region were of the view that Kenyans should have none of the candidates vying for the presidency,” says Mitula.
She adds that voter apathy is highest among the youth, many of whom view elections as a process that only helps politicians and their cronies to get jobs.
Raphael Obonyo, a public policy analyst, concurs, saying ‘Generation Z’ is sending a strong statement to politicians that they will not be taken for a ride.
“We normally assume that when one turns 18 and gets an identity card, he or she would definitely want to vote. It does not work that way. Youths need a lot of convincing,” says Obonyo.
In every election, the same faces appear.
He notes that in the US, apathy among the youth was high until Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders of the Democratic Party came on board with strong campaign slogans and resonating messages.
“Young people do not see the connection between an election and their daily life. They need to be convinced that elections have a bearing on their daily life,” says Obonyo.
He adds that Kenya’s political scene has been dominated by leaders who have been in the game for decades “and many people doubt whether they can bring anything new on the table.”
Josephine Moraa, 32, says she did not vote because Kenya’s politics has been dominated by the same faces for decades.
“In every election, the same faces appear. For example, Raila Odinga [Orange Democratic Movement party leader], William Ruto [United Democratic Alliance party leader], Kalonzo Musyoka [Wiper Democratic Movement party leader], Musalia Mudavadi [Amani National Congress party leader] and Moses Wetangula [Ford Kenya party leader] have been in the game for so long. We really need new faces,” she tells The Africa Report.
The issue of old guards aside, professor Mugambi Kiai, the regional director of Article 19, an international human rights organisation, says general elections are by major issues that prop up voter turnout, but this year’s elections did not motivate voters.
“In 2002, the rallying call was [to] remov[e] the autocratic Kenya African National Union regime from power; in 2007, the election was crafted around the exclusion of other tribes by the so-called Mount Kenya mafia; and in 2013, the ICC cases against Kenyatta and Ruto rallied their ethnic bases behind them, contributing to a very high voter turnout,” says Kiai
Hustler nation and inawezekana slogans
This year, Ruto came up with the ‘hustler nation’ catchphrase, while his rival Odinga crafted the inawezekana (it is possible) slogan to rally masses behind them.
Many people doubt whether they [politicians] can bring anything new on the table.
However, going by the poor turnout, it seems the slogans failed to mobilise voters.
However, Caroline Mose, a political analyst, insists the turnout recorded in this year’s election is genuine, going by experiences in other democratic countries.
“I think we are seeing the true reflection of voter turnout. A voter turnout of 95% to 97% is not normal. Those are normally cooked numbers,” says Mose.
She says despite voting being compulsory in Australia and Belgium, the last elections in the two countries registered an 80.8% and 77.9% voter turnout respectively.
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