Handicapping the Kenyan Election

The Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios

A woman walks past a campaign poster for Ralia Odinga. (Siegfried Modola / Courtesy Reuters)

As Kenyans go to the polls, observers are bracing for a replay of the country’s horrific 2007 presidential elections, which produced a wave of ethnic violence that killed more than a thousand people and displaced over a half a million. The violence was even more traumatic given that at first things had seemed to be going well. Kenyans had voted peacefully and in great numbers. When it became clear that the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki was losing, however, he rigged the count and declared himself president. Public frustration awakened long-standing latent ethnic tensions. The conflict, which lasted a week, eventually ground East Africa to a halt; it is thought to have cost the Kenyan economy more than a billion dollars. Most of those who spearheaded and perpetrated such violence have yet to be held to account.   

There is no telling whether today's election will have such disastrous consequences. Polling indicates that the contest is far too close to call. In all likelihood, the first round of voting will lead to a runoff election on April 10 between Raila Odinga, the current prime minister of Kenya’s hastily-constructed unity government, and Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s deputy Prime Minster and the son of Kenya’s first president. The tightness of the race bodes ill; it is unlikely that either side will be able to score a quick victory, and it will not take much vote rigging to influence the election’s outcome. The losing party is virtually certain, therefore, to contest the results. Some violence, in other words, seems all but assured. The question is how long it will last, whether it will spread nationwide, and how many people will be displaced, injured, or killed.

Adding to the tension is the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) indictment of Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, for crimes against humanity during the rioting in 2007. The ICC move was met with outrage in

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