Notwithstanding the pitfalls inherent in opinion throughout the world including in the developed western democracies, the science remains central to tracking voters’ attitudes especially in hotly contested elections where people’s preferences are subject to change within short intervals.
Most Kenyan analysts – Jubilee and NASA – have criticized the polling by the two main polling firms Ipsos and Infotrak, which are perceived as leaning to the two coalitions in that order. However, the results of the latest polls released on Sunday capture an undeniable reality of the evolving campaign: the sudden disappearance of a huge advantage President Uhuru Kenyatta enjoyed as recently as three months ago.
With mainstream media in the tank for the Jubilee government, Kenyans and other observers of the political process hardly come across professional analysis of the unexpected trend of Uhuru losing instead of gaining support in the final days of this campaign.
Three things stand out in explaining Uhuru’s diminishing fortunes. The first is that NASA presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s has successfully debunked the myth of an unbeatable incumbent that was at the heart of Uhuru’s surge in recent years, despite the government’s disastrous performance.
He did so by coalescing a coalition bringing all the top national leaders from outside Kikuyu and Kalenjin lands, where voters were more open to honest prognosis on their own deteriorating conditions of life rather than the entrenched ethnic solidarity of the tribes controlling the government and dispensing patronage benefits to their kin.
In the back and forth defections of top leaders that have marked this election season, it is easy even for our seasoned newspaper analysts to gloss over the fact that NASA got a net gain from the defections, its parties losing mostly political ‘rejects’ who won’t win their seats back on Jubilee tickets. Hardly any of the leaders elected on NASA affiliated parties in 2013 who defected to Jubilee will win back their seats.
On the other hand, NASA received top political assets from their areas. Key among these is former minister for Education Prof. Sam Ongeri who is tipped to win the Kisii senate seat in ODM by a wide margin, according to county opinion polls and ground dynamics.
While Kisii was already NASA stronghold and Prof. Ongeri’s defection did not bring the coalition any new votes, it contributed to the erosion of the little support Jubilee hoped to get there. For over twenty years of multiparty politics, Prof. Ongeri had stood strongly against the Odingas, starting right in 1992 when he rejected Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
In 2002, 2007 and 2013, he had not time for Raila, and between 2008-13 was President Mwai Kibaki’s top ally in Nyanza. During the Kibaki succession, he was Uhuru’s most senior ally after the president himself and deputy president William Ruto and their coalition partners Charity Ngilu and Najib Balala.
That Prof. Ongeri could countenance the idea of defecting from Jubilee and supporting Mr Odinga, a man he had spent his life fighting, signified to the Kisii that their community members had no future in the Uhuru administration. The defection also showed that no one would expect to win an elective seat in Kisii in this election as an ally of President Kenyatta’s.
The same situation obtains in the Coast, where former Foreign Affairs minister Ali Mwakwere had to defect to NASA to realistically run for the Kwale governor seat. Uhuru was slowly being ostracized, and the low-level politicians he won over from NASA parties were easily labeled “tumbocrats” (corrupt leaders following patronage money).
Raila answered the narrative of an unbeatable incumbent with a strong countervailing argument about what Jubilee had not done for the people. He did not campaign in Kikuyu and Kalenjin areas until well into the campaign season, even as Uhuru and Ruto were domiciled there to show their people that they still called the shots in politics.
By the time Uhuru and Ruto smelled the coffee, Coast, Eastern, Western and non-Kalenjin Rift Valley were gone. And Raila’s surge, while based on the remarkable exploitation of Jubilee failures, most notably the unga crisis, was fueled by the defection of the very leaders Jubilee had mistreated, such as Ongeri and Mwakwere.
As this unfolded, the very basis of Jubilee’s support base (winning over opposition members through financial incentives) became its Archilles heel. Defectors were increasingly scorned, forcing several from the Coast and Kisii who had joined Jubilee to troop back to NASA parties.
Likewise, disaffected Jubilee leaders instantaneously turned into heroes in their communities when they joined NASA. Taraiya ole Kores, the former Jubilee aspirant for the Kajiado governorship, is reported to have told Mr Ruto to his face that Jubilee would lose the Maasai vote.
According to a NASA leader briefed on the events, Mr Kores held a long meeting with deputy president William Ruto a day before he announced his surprising switch. Mr Ruto reportedly made it clear to him that the government would not hand over power to Mr Odinga even if he won the election. “Do you think we will hand over to Tinga?” Mr Ruto posed, using Mr Odinga’s nickname.
The threat didn’t go down well with Mr Kores who felt that, after being edged out of the Jubilee nomination, he was now being blackmailed to remain loyal to the party. “I will move to NASA and we will win. I will see how you guys cling to power,” Mr Kores retorted and left the meeting. The next day he reached out to Mr Odinga and announced his defection officially.
Kwale Governor Salim Mvurya, Kilifi MP Gideon Mungaro and Mumias East Ben Washiala also defected to Jubilee, and their campaign narrative has been that Mr Odinga, who has been rigged from winning the presidency in two successive elections, wouldn’t be allowed by the Kenyan elite to rule the country.
Another of Mr Odinga’s strategies was to avoid a discussion on specific deliverables of his government. Unlike in 2013 when he promised detailed development programmes, this time NASA left projects out of its manifesto, a decision that caused some tension even at the NASA secretariat.
Mr Odinga strongly felt that Kenyans know what they want and what he had achieved in government. Indeed, he has gone around the country pointing to projects he launched as prime minister, and which Jubilee has been taking advantage. From roads in Northeastern to the standard gauge railway itself, all Mr Odinga has had to do is describe to voters his own initiation of the projects, bringing to meetings the local people he worked with in designing the projects, agreeing the land allocations for them and the cabinet papers.
In the process, he exposed Uhuru and Ruto as ‘liars’ even as the mainstream media continued to credit Jubilee with completing the projects, while not raising questions about the dozens of the real Jubilee projects that didn’t even start, or stalled after gulping billions of shillings.
To observers of the media, this election provides an experience similar to the U.S election of 2016 where the mainstream media persuaded itself to a cause and championed despite popular resistance until it came face to face with reality on Election Day. Ordinary Kenyans are suffering the deepest impoverishment in a generation, but the media reports their predicament only as being part of opposition politics rather than a reality needing addressing.
The last technique NASA used was to define itself as the underdog, thereby winning the support of all those pissed off by the corrupt Jubilee system. The cases against the IEBC, for example, provided the context for Jubilee to show its fangs, emerging each time to defend the IEBC on irregular procurement, lopsided hiring of staff and opaque processes, including on the finality of results declared at polling stations, leaving no doubt about their convergence of interests.
The intransigence by IEBC contributed to the increased understanding by Raila’s supporters about how he has twice been cheated of victory. His supporters will come out in large numbers. And they will protect the vote. The government knows, which is why, for the first time, it has earmarked Machakos as a ‘hotspot’.