Thursday, March 14, 2013

Diary of an Election Nerd

I love elections on the best of days. I love watching counts trickle in. I love the tallies, the speculation. The fact that everyone becomes an expert on election. I love being able to use the word psephologist authoritatively. This love of elections has only grown/been more easily facilitated through my adoption of/obsession with Twitter in recent months. And so last week I spent a week glued to Twitter and various news websites as the voting, and counting,  took place in Kenya.

Monday morning I awoke, giddy and excited.  The TVs in my hotel were tuned to Citizen TV (a Kenyan TV station) and even over breakfast I had my laptop out to see what the news was. By breakfast time, voters had already been queueing for hours in their thousands, eager and anxious to exercise their right to vote.

I spent the day tweeting and re-tweeting like a mad yoke; chatting to journalists who were in Kenya, swopping the stories we were hearing - the long queues, the baby-swopping, the 3am wake-up calls experienced in many neighbourhoods, the failure of the electronic equipment in some polling stations. The pictures of the voting lines were particularly impressive, and it has since been established that turn-out was 86% of registered voters. An impressive number. In the most recent Irish election in 2011, turnout was 70%, and this was the highest it had been for well over two decades.

As the day wore on it became apparent that voting would not conclude at 5pm as planned, and polling station stayed open well into the evening and night to facilitate all of those who The fact that people queued for, 4, 5, 6+ hours to vote, lining up peacefully down the street should be one of *the* stories of this election.

On Monday night, votes were starting to come in from the polling stations that has closed, with tallies being submitted by returning officers electronically. By the time I went to bed about 15% of constituencies were reporting. Kenyatta was in the lead but as every journalist and commentator agreed, it was early days. With the counts coming in so quickly, there was optimism that we would know the next president of Kenya by as early as Wednesday. Or that we would at least know if the voting in the presidential race would go to a second round.

Another morning of waking up excited, of rolling over and turning on the 3G on my phone to see what the latest news from Kenya was. 25% of votes had been tallied by 8am that morning and Kenyatta was still ahead but it was still early days. Still early days. The predictions from all sides were that while Kenyatta would probably win more votes than Odinga, he was unlikely to win the 50% needed to avoid a run-off.

The main story of the day was spoiled votes. Or rejected votes, as most of the TV networks were calling them. By Tuesday afternoon approximately 250,000 votes, of the 4.5 million counted, had been declared rejected. This represented just under 6% of the votes tallied at that stage, a huge number. Clarification was sought as to how those votes counted. Did candidates need to get 50% of valid votes cast, or votes cast? The consensus was that these votes, did indeed count, and that candidates needed 50% + 1 of all votes cast, to be declared the winner.

By the afternoon, number crunching and the compilation of complex prediction spreadsheets has become de rigeur on Twitter. Commentators were pulling together predictions, attempting to calculate just how many Kenyatta strongholds had been counted so far, and how many Odinga ones, to see how the percentages might change. Once again the consensus was that we were reached towards a run-off election in April.

By Wednesday morning the vote tallying had slowed considerably and by 8am about 43% of votes were estimated to have been counted. Kenyatta's lead over Odinga had diminished slightly, but he was still comfortably over 53%.

I was thrilled! We would know a winner by that evening most likely, hurrah. I was a little concerned about the physical transportation of all of these returning officers (knowing how slow travelling across Kenya can be) and also that the electronic systems seemed to be failing.

By the afternoon it felt as if the 'wheels had come off the wagon'. The IEBC annoucned that it had stopped tallying the provisional results that it had been receiving and would switch to receiving the official, manual tallies from each constituency.  In order to speed up this process of vote tallying, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced it would begin physically bringing all of the 291 returning officers from around the country to the central count centre at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi, in order to speed up the process. They maintain that this process should be completed by Thursday.

Exhausted and a bit fed up about seeing the count start at zero again, I take the afternoon off social media and TV.

My time 'offline' cleared my head and I once again woke up early with good feelings. Lots of good elections feelings. By 11.45am my good feelings have gone thanks, in no small part, to the press conference held by Kalonzo (Raila Odinga's vice presidential running mate) claiming that votes had been doctored and that vote rigging had taken place. The TV stations, admirably, chose not to broadcast this, and other similar press conferences live, in order to prevent such statements triggering unrest.

Throughout the day as the new official tallies came in, a new trend was emerging - the number of spoiled/rejected votes was far, far, lower this time round. In fact it was less than 1%.Where did the rejected votes? The answer came that afternoon from the IEBC. A computer error somewhere had multiplied all of the rejected votes by 8. Why? Who knows? But this, frankly bizarre, explanation was accepted by most parties (and made sense mathematically) and the vote tallying continued on. And on. And on.

By around 10pm that night, the number of constituencies with results declared tipped the halfway point and the momentum appeared to be keeping up. Kenyatta's solid 53/54% lead has eroded to 49%, leaving the possibility of a run-off back in play. Analysts and commentators from all sides maintained that votes from Odinga strongholds were still coming in slower than Kenyatta ones, and that the distance between the two candidates might close further by Friday.

International Women's Day! And as it is celebrated as a public holiday in Uganda, the office was closed so John, Dara and I worked in the morning from the hotel and then spent the afternoon doing laundry and cooking dinner in a friend's house (the cooking of dinner was our payment for using and abusing her washing machine). Periodic checking of Twitter showed the flood of votes being tallied had slowed to a trickle. I wasn't missing too much.

When we returned to the hotel at about 11pm we saw that the IEBC were holding a press conference. We piled into my room to watch it on the TV, hoping that we would know the result very soon. After over an hour of battling heavy eyelids, and with little news trickling in from the last few constituencies that had to report, John and Dara went to bed in their rooms. I fought sleep a little longer, incredibly reluctant to miss the moment when the result would be announced.

Then the IEBC said that they would hold a press conference at 11am the next morning. Reassured that I wouldn't miss anything overnight, I fell asleep.

I woke up to the news that there was a president in Kenya. Somewhere between 1am, when I had fallen asleep, and 7am when I had woken up, the TV stations had declared Uhuru Kenyatta the 4th President of Kenya. It was a morning of mixed emotions. I was definitely relieved and happy that the counting was finally all over. I was also happy that there wasn't going to be a second round of voting, for both selfish, personal reasons (it meant I would get to go back to Nairobi sooner) and more empathetic reasons (a run-off could have been move divisive than the first round).

But I was uneasy at the same time. The margin of Kenyatta's victory was so slim - 50.07% - that a challenge by Odinga was inevitable. I was also nervous about the implications of there being a Kenyan President and a Vice President who are facing trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague in July and May respectively. On Saturday morning became the first country in the world to elect a President who was facing trial at the ICC. (President Omar al-Bashir was re-elected in Sudan while indicted). A dubious honour. And one which is bound to have some repercussions for Kenya in the weeks and months ahead. Though what those exactly are, is extremely unclear.

The official announcement was made by the IEBC just before 2pm (nearly 3 hours late), but by that stage, Kenyatta supporters had already been celebrating for hours, and Odinga and his team had already announced their intention to appeal the results in court. But the story was one of peace. Celebrations were boisterous, not violent. Those who had supported candidates that had not one, commiserated but didn't rebel. The results were accepted, and if they weren't, there were legal and procedural channels by which to address these grievances. Not once, did it look like the violence of 2007/8 would be repeated.

By Sunday I was deflated, exhausted, zapped of adrenaline and a little behind in my week's work. The only cure was a day spent in a coffee shop with my laptop out and a constant supply of coffee and brownies. And Twitter switched off.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Watching from the Dug-Out/Being Benched

I spent a good chunk of today, March 4th, in a hipster-like cafe in the Kisimenti district of Kampala. The appeal of the place was more it's decent wi-fi, rather than a strong desire for a chai latte. Why? I wanted to do some work for a few hours out of the office but I also wanted to follow the events happening in Kenya as 14.3 million people went to the polls to vote for the country's 4th president since independence.

Having been re-located temporarily by the organisation that I work with as part of its security contingency measures, I desperately wanted to follow the events happening in the country that had been my home for the past 16 months. And so I logged onto Twitter and opened up Uchaguzi on my browser (and on my phone when my wi-fi failed) and watched as the reports, the pictures, the stories bounced around - linked (on Twiiter anyway) by the hashtag, #kenyadecides.

Sitting in the cafe in Kampala I felt like I had been benched - to put an American phrase to good use. To use an expression more fitting for my Irish readers, I felt like I was stuck in the dug-out at the side of the pitch, looking on, as the action took place without me. Yes, I tweeted and re-tweeted, I chatted to others online, but it was not the same.

Not that I have any direct connection with the elections, other than the fact that I live and work in Nairobi. I am a resident of Kenya, not a citizen. I would not have been voting yesterday. And yet I feel tied to the country and I care deeply about what happens. I have followed this election process almost since I arrived in Kenya, back in November 2011. I read about delays after delays; of an election pushed from August 2012, to December 2012 to, finally, March 2013. I followed the stories of the ICC pre-trial hearing with great interest. I watched as candidates joined the race, and dropped out. I looked on as the newly-formed IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) struggled to organise every stage of the election from the re-drawing of constituency boundaries at every level, to voter registration and January's nomination elections. But as polling began at around 6am this morning many of the earlier hiccups did not manifest themselves and most polling stations were fully equipped to deal with the long lines of people who turned out to vote. According to ELOG (the Election Observation Group in Kenya) 99.4% of polling stations had all of the materials needed to carry out the polling and there was adequate security present throughout the country.

Growing Nervous
In the days leading up to today's polling I found myself getting more and more nervous about what lay in store. I read so many articles on the internet - mainly from international news agencies and international organisations - that seemed to spell doom. They had titles like 'Vote M for Murder' and 'Elections in Kenya. There Will Be Atrocities'. And from Uganda it was harder than ever to separate the myth-making from the reality. To distinguish what might just have been the lazy international media narrative of what they wanted these elections to be, rather than what they actually were.

In reaction a number of African commentators posted warnings and satires on this growing number of clich├ęs used by foreign journalists, many of whom only arrived in Kenya last week. The Sunday edition of the Daily Nation published this satirical piece and the excellent website Africa is a Country posted this advice in reaction to one CNN report in particular which has caused great offense in Kenya. In the coming days, as results come in and

Pre-election violence
I woke up this morning to reports of violence in Mombasa and other coastal areas overnight. 15 hours later it seems that 15 people, including 9 police/security officers, though these figures still seem to be disputed. However what could have been a chilling omen for what would happen yesterday was not to be. Police in Kenya have claimed that the attack was perpetrated by the MRC, the Mombasa Republican Council, a group which would like Mombasa to secede from the rest of Kenya. The group has denied responsibility for the attacks, claiming it seeks only peaceful solutions for its aims.

The main story of the day was the queues. Queues, queues, queues as far as the eye could see and Twitter was awash with Twitpics and Instragram shots of the long lines, some stretching 1-2km out of polling stations. Some of the most impressive pictures I saw (and subsequently re-tweeted obviously!) were can be seen here here and here. There were loads more besides, and rough turn-out estimates are reporting turn-outs in the region of 80 and 90% in many polling stations. Though these are early figures, they are impressive percentages by any standards.

Passing the baby?
One of my absolute favourite stories from today was that of 'baby-passing'. In some places voters who had brought babies and small children with them were being allowed to skip the very long queues. This resulted in people passing babies around in order to move up the queue. Reports on Twitter suggested that some people were even paying up to 100 shillings (just less than 1 euro) to borrow a baby. However not everyone got away with it, as this tweet shows.

Polling officers quickly cottoned on to this in many areas and many began 'inking' the babies, just as they were doing with voters themselves, to show that they had voted!

What happens now?
As I write this the polls are not long closed in many places across Kenya, and with six separate elections to count the final tallies will take days to come in. But with the IEBC promising to gather and distribute results from polling stations as soon as they see them we should begin to have a picture by Wednesday, especially of the presidential race, which the IEBC is prioritising. I'll be writing another blogpost in a day or two when there is more information but for now I am proud that as the sun sets here in East Africa, a day of voting has passed off relatively peacefully in Kenya. The next test will be the counting of the votes, and the acceptance of the results by all sides.

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