How game theory can help avoid a runoff election

Saturday July 29 2017

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Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium causing mayhem in the infected intestines of rich and poor Nairobians, famous and infamous, important and less important alike, came into action at the most inopportune moment for incumbents and as a gift from heaven for any opposition candidate.

The cholera outbreak in Nairobi should not be a shock to anyone. It is just the expected result of the politics of cholera.

For too long many have stolen from public coffers with impunity. We have ransacked medical supplies, hospitals and our water infrastructure.

Cholera is also a social symptom, the tip of the iceberg that shows the ugly face of corruption in sanitation and health infrastructure, and of injustices in our labour practices.

Our cholera shows itself in many ways. The most prominent form in today’s pre-election Kenya is political cholera. This cholera drains the brain of ideas and the person goes into a survival mode to help the race survive. This cholera pegs voting to ethnicity.

Political cholera transforms democratic elections into a rowdy, violent contest, where ideas, character and honesty matter no more. All that matters is to get "my candidate" through, so that "my race" may survive, and it will only survive if my candidate wins.

We are so narrow-minded that we do not look at the real possibilities. We are not thinking long-term.

This mental and political diarrhoea is so severe that we cannot think of tomorrow but want results here and now; my candidate must win. That attitude creates tension that easily degenerates in violence.

When I was trying to understand the different possible scenarios, the convenience of voting for this or that candidate, Dr Edward Mungai came to my rescue and put in clear terms what he considered would be a long-term solution for the country, using game theory.

Think, for example, of Wanjiku, an ordinary Kenyan woman struggling to survive, a typical ordinary village woman.

Surely, Wanjiku is a member of a women’s group, usually called a Chama and faithfully pays her contributions and loans. Globally, the rate of loan repayment is higher among women's group members than individual loans in traditional banks.

The high loan repayment rate has been attributed to the fear of consequences that a woman defaulter would face from her fellow Chama members.

One possible consequence is that Wanjiku would become the talk of the village for a long time if she failed to pay her loan on time. The fear of such long-term punishment therefore makes Wanjiku forgo the short-term benefits of not paying the loan and using the money for other things.


According to Dr Mungai, the comparison between short-term and long-term benefits is crucial when trying to identify the likely behaviour of a person who has to make a decision.

The study of such decision-making considerations is called strategic game theory, a branch of mathematics. Game theory is a powerful tool in understanding the relationships that are made or broken based on short-term versus long-term benefits.

In paying her loan on time, Wanjiku is in essence applying game theory principles. She values the long-term benefits of remaining a member of the Chama.

By applying game theory principles, Wanjiku could also help Kenya avoid the now very possible second-run vote in the upcoming presidential elections.

For this to happen, Wanjiku needs to evaluate the possible short-term benefits of choosing her preferred candidate now, versus the long-term benefits of choosing the alternative candidate now for a better chance in future.

Let us assume Wanjiku has decided to vote for candidate A. If candidate A wins, Wanjiku will have achieved her short-term benefits. However, given that in a tight race both candidates A and B are equally likely to win, Wanjiku cannot be certain of these short-term benefits.

In such a case, Wanjiku could use game theory to compare her long-term benefits. For example, Wanjiku may appreciate that if candidate A wins, his running mate (A2) will be the presidential candidate in 2022. Alternatively, if candidate B wins, the running mate (B2) will be the presidential candidate in 2022. 


Wanjiku can decide which presidential candidate between A2 and B2 she would prefer. If for 2022 she prefers candidate A2, then Wanjiku should vote for candidate A in 2017.

However, if for 2022, she prefers candidate B2, then Wanjiku should vote for candidate B, even if she hates him. The application of strategic game theory could help tilt the balance of the forthcoming election to one side or the other out of love or hatred for the running mate.

The additional fact that we did not have a smooth start for the IEBC, and that too many cases have been taken to court as a way of keeping the tension and propaganda alive and relevant, make a close election a danger we would want to avoid.

Edward Mungai is right. Wanjiku could forego her short-term benefits in 2017 in preference for her long-term benefits in 2022.

Perhaps if we stop looking only at short-term gains and think of the candidates of the future, 2022 and 2027, we may decide our destiny differently and avoid a close election or a possible run-off. It’s worth a thought.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi