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.

No comments:

Post a Comment