Populist rigging claims a threat to peaceful elections in 2017

Sunday January 10 2016

Raila Odinga giving his state of the nation

Raila Odinga giving his state of the nation address at Serena Hotel on January 5, 2016 when he claimed Jubilee is plotting to rig 2017 general elections. Mr Odinga and other Kenyan leaders have both a moral and legal responsibility to supply evidence to back their claims. PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Last week, this column argued that a brazenly Machiavellian-style spin-doctoring is a real threat to the future of Kenya’s democracy.

The warning is proving rather prescient.

Even before the ink is dry, on January 5, Opposition leader Raila Odinga alleged at a press conference that the Jubilee Government is planning to rig the 2017 elections.

Perceptibly, in Africa’s badly divided societies, claims of vote rigging or fraud – the illegal interference with the process of an election – if not backed by solid evidence can be as gravely reckless and calamitous as shouting fire in a crowded theatre.

Across democracies, rigging is a serious affair.

As Lynn Westmoreland quipped, election fraud is “the greatest threat to the constitutional right to vote”.

It has the effect of a coup d’état or corruption of democracy.

Perceptions of vote tampering are known to reduce the voters’ confidence in democracy, lead people to reject results, cause breakdown of democracy and the return of dictatorship.

Unsubstantiated rigging claims – overlaid with cavalier spins of “clawing back on freedoms” and “taking the country back to dictatorship” – is a treacherous double-barrelled propaganda offensive to erode public confidence in their elected government.
Conceptually, this is aptly captured by Lawrence Freedman’s (2013) analysis of “Satan’s Strategy” – the ruthless deployment of strategy in a Machiavellian sense to gain power at all costs.


In Kenya, populist claims of vote rigging, which form the kernel of “Satan’s Strategy” as the heart and soul of Machiavellianism, harkens back to the importation into the country of the strategies used in the Ukraine’s 2004/2005 anarchic Orange Revolution during the 2007 presidential campaigns.

Alleging rigging as a Machiavellian trick of winning power in Kenya coincides with the entry of American spin-doctor, Dick Morris, into the field of political consultancy in Kenya in the first decade of the 21st century.

Before Odinga introduced him at a press conference in Nairobi as his campaign strategist on November 13, 2007, Morris was less known in Africa than in the West — where he was best known for managing Bill Clinton’s successful 1996 bid for re-election before he became badly tainted and resigned.

However, Morris’ foray into Kenya was cut short when he was deported after an editorial by one of the leading Kenyan dailies raised the flag about the legalities of his consulting work in Kenya either “pro bono” or “through the back door”.

But the footprints of his “Satan’s Strategy” are as discernible on the road to 2017 as they were a decade ago.

Morris imported into Kenya two tricks in the art of using rigging to enable an otherwise weak candidate to capture power.

Morris introduced the use of opinion polls in disputed elections.

“Rigged” opinion polls are used to project a client as the front-runner and the candidate to beat.

This set the stage for a pseudo-scientific “exit poll” to prove ballot tampering.

Related to this, Morris also introduced the strategy of alleging planned rigging by the government months before the first ballot is cast.

This is followed by even bolder claims of “stolen election” when the official results of the presidential election vary materially from the results of the “rigged surveys” and “exit poll”.

This strategy has enabled opposition candidates to reject official results and push for run-off or power sharing.

The “rigging” allegation strategy is a “self-fulfilling prophecy”: Declare that there are plans to rig the elections; after the results are out and you have lost, reject the results, declare the election stolen and organise “non-violent” protests to claim power.

The strategy worked like clockwork in Kenya’s 2007 contest. On December 24, 2007, three days to the General Elections, Odinga alleged that the election would be rigged in favour of President Mwai Kibaki.

The swearing-in of Kibaki as the official winner triggered the Economist Magazine’s “twilight robbery” thesis, which went viral internationally.

In Kenya, as in Ukraine and Mexico earlier, Morris’ strategy left behind a trail of tension, turmoil and bloodshed.

The 2013 elections saw the return of Morris’ strategy.

On February 17, 2013, less than a month to the March 4, 2013 Presidential elections, Odinga alleged that government officers in the provincial administration, the military and the National Intelligence Service were plotting to rig elections in favour of Jubilee.

And on March 8, 2013, a day before Kenyatta was officially declared the winner, his party claimed that: “We have evidence that the results we have received have been doctored.” Paradoxically, as Prime Minister, Odinga was effectively the incumbent.

In the run-up to 2017, the vote rigging strategy has come too early.

Unveiling the ODM 2017 strategy on January 23, 2014, Raila claimed at a public rally in Kisumu that “the military” and IEBC had a hand in rigging him out in 2013.

And on January 5, 2016 Odinga alleged that the Jubilee Government is planning to rig the 2017 elections.

Generically, vote rigging serves as a propaganda tool to win public sympathy, discredit the capacity of election management institutions and demoralise the voter.

In Kenya, critics posit that the Odinga dynasty has used rigging claims to remain relevant and stem revolt particularly in Luo Nyanza politics after a series of electoral losses in 1992, 1997, 2007 and 2013.

As citizens, Mr Odinga and other Kenyan leaders have both a moral and legal responsibility to supply evidence to back their claims of planned electoral fraud – preferably channelled through the institutions established by our constitution.

Populist rigging claims are a potential tinderbox and should not be entertained as we head to 2017.

Prof Kagwanja is chief executive, Africa Policy Institute