After this column last week, I had a discussion with a worthy reader about how President Uhuru Kenyatta’s electoral victory could be “razor-thin” given that it was by over 800,000 votes.
It is interesting because, why not “narrow” margin? The general idea was that in Africa, even in democratic nations like South Africa and Botswana, presidents still win elections with 70 per cent of the vote.
Some still get over 90 per cent. Compared to that, Kenyatta’s 50.07 per cent against former Premier Raila Odinga’s 43.28 per cent is extremely thin.
In the African context, then, anything less than a 10 percentage difference can be said to be razor thin — although the 2007 election in which Mwai Kibaki got 47 per cent of the vote and Raila 44 per cent (a difference of 225,174 votes) perhaps fitted the bill better.
Many dispute the outcome of both the 2007 and March elections. But assume Raila had emerged winner in 2007 and 2013, the one thing that would not have changed is the margin. His victory too would have been very narrow.
Which is why the interesting thing here is the margin of victory itself, and less so the winner. These results reveal an important evolution in Africa.
Even when elections are fiddled, the fact that those who cheat cannot steal enough votes to give them a margin of victory bigger than 10 per cent tells us that there is a rigging ceiling.
We are seeing the emergence of “low victory margin” countries. Three of them in particular stand out: Kenya, Ghana, Senegal.
In last year’s December election, Ghana’s President John Mahama got 50.7 per cent of the vote against opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo’s 47.7 per cent. Like Kenya’s, that election too ended in court.
In Senegal, the February 26, 2012 election ended in deadlock, with the current President, Macky Sall getting 26.5 per cent of the vote, and the octogenarian Abdoulaye Wade coming first with 34.8 per cent.
With no candidate getting more than 50 per cent, they went for a rematch in March. Wade was now deeply wounded, and the losers united around Sall.
At the second round, Sall saw off Wade with a hefty 65.8 per cent against 34.2 per cent. However all the last two regime changes in Senegal have been decided in a second round face-off.
What is different about these two countries is that new societies are struggling to emerge out of the old.
Countries like Kenya, Ghana and Senegal are also among the more innovative nations on the continent.
So, even when elections end being divisive as Kenya’s and Ghana’s, they still suggest that there is greater homogenisation and democratisation going on.
We often forget that in some parts of Africa, and Asia, people are still not free to vote tribally for their own. They are too afraid of the consequences.
It is progress when ethnic voting becomes a fairly low-risk activity, even though it tends to result in a deeply divided electorate.
Consider then another democracy, Botswana. Since independence in 1966, Botswana has been ruled by one party; the Botswana Democratic Party, and essentially by one clan or chieftaincy, the BamaNgwato.
In the 2009 election President Ian Khama’s BDP won 45 of 57 constituencies, and about 54 per cent of the popular vote, against just over 20 per cent for the opposition Botswana National Front.
Botswana is a democratic country, but you could argue it is not a free nation.
In 2005, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete won with a whopping 80 per cent of the vote.
In 2010 he was re-elected with “only” 61 per cent; one of the lowest ever for a candidate of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi. Of course, one party too has ruled Tanzania since independence.
Other countries like Uganda where President Museveni also wins with Kikwete-style margins are ruled by liberation parties that came to power through a guerrilla war.
So those “monolithic” margins, if we might call them that, tell you something else about countries: That they have moved beyond the independence and liberation/revolutionary phase.
That they have stared extreme electoral uncertainty, and cutthroat elections in the face, and lived to tell the story.
You can say, then, that Botswana or Tanzania, have not been tested like Ghana and Kenya.