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Black swans, pink elephants and the much-anticipated 2013 Kenyan vote

Wednesday December 5 2012

 

By CHARLES ONYANGO OBBO

The past few days in Kenya have seen a hurricane of political coalitions ahead of the elections in March next year.

We were watching one of the coalition bonanzas on TV in the office when fellow editor and Daily Nation columnist Jaindi Kisero remarked; “Everything in Kenya has changed — the Constitution, the courts, the economy — except its politics.”

By that he meant that, unlike other coalition-bedevilled countries like Israel, where most of the haggling when forming coalitions is over accommodating the policies of parties that are being courted, in Kenya it is almost exclusively about sharing jobs. And it has been that way for many years.

Despite all the drama around coalitions, my sense is that the most important political news in Kenya is happening elsewhere. It is the surprisingly low voter registration turnout.

With less than two weeks to go, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commissions (IEBC) has barely managed to register six million voters. The goal of 20 million voters might just be met in the last minute rush, but it is also possible that only 10 million voters could be registered.

If this happens, it would confirm the possibility that the March election could turn out to be Kenya’s biggest “black swan” event.

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The theory of black swan events was made popular by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s hugely popular and influential 2007 book Black Swan.

One of the simplest descriptions of a black swan event is that it is a surprise, difficult-to-predict, rare event which is beyond our normal expectations, but which has a big impact. And after it happens, with the benefit of hindsight, we all say we should have seen it coming.

Something as rare as a black swan, or a pink elephant. However, once we see them, we figure that we should have known that there would be a black swan or pink elephant out there.

So, contrary to all expectations, Kenya 2013 might actually not be as big as many expect it will be.

If you follow Kenyan blogs, and comments on Twitter and Facebook, Kenyans display a distinct disgust with politics. There is also a lot of condemnation of the media for being “obsessed” with politics.

In the past, that criticism was hypocritical because when media left politics and covered social issues, the readers and viewers would not pay attention. It seems, though, that things might be different this time.

To begin with, the biometric voter registration (BVR) might have a lot to do with the low turnout. BVR makes it easier to catch cheats who register many times. If this is the case, then the problem is not that few Kenyans have turned out to register.

Rather than in the past, their numbers were inflated through fraud. This would suggest that Kenyan voter enthusiasm has always been low.

However, assume that is the case and it is only this time that Kenyans are disinterested. What would have caused it? Many commentators have warned that with the highly devolved system in the new Constitution, the “real presidential elections” will be for the county governorships, not State House Nairobi.

These commentators might just turn out to be right. Even for the so-called “tribal voters”, their tribal passions might well be invested in the governor, especially in the multi-ethnic counties, than in the national president.

Matters are not helped by the fact that, as Kisero noted, there is little new on the political menu. It is the same old faces, coming together in the same old coalitions.

This at a time when nearly all opinion polls of the past four years have reported that most Kenyans believe that coalition governments make for ineffective and unacceptably divided government.

So come March, Kenya could have the lowest turnout in its election history. People might vote in decent numbers for county governor and senator, and possibly MP, but it might be that few will bother to tick the box for presidential candidate.

Thus if 10 million, out of 20 million potential voters, vote for governor and senator, we could end up with 5-6 million voting for presidential candidates. It would be a humiliating outcome, and effectively the winner of the presidential race will be “none of the above”.

Is that likely to happen? No. But if it did, with hindsight, we would all see why. The perfect black swan event.