Big Unknown Factor in Kenya’s Monday Elections: Voter Turnout

Will voter turnout disappoint Raila Odinga tomorrow? (Jacob Owiti/Daily Nation)

Will voter turnout disappoint Raila Odinga tomorrow? (Jacob Owiti/Daily Nation)

The outcome of the presidential election in Kenya on Monday will hinge on turnout. Whether we shall wake up on March 5th with a president-elect or have to go for a runoff will depend on regional turnout rates.

As it is most public opinion polls point to a runoff.

However, the polls do not give us a sense of what proportion of registered voters are likely to vote.

One private poll that I have seen suggests that 98.3% of those polled said they would show up to vote. Such turnout numbers belong in Belarus. I expect average turnout to be between 75-85%.

Below is a table with the turnout rates in the last three presidential elections. (The 2007 figures should be taken with a pinch of salt, for obvious reasons). As you can see history seems to be on Kenyatta’s side. Central Kenya and the Rift Valley, the two most populous regions of the country, both support him overwhelmingly, according to the latest Ipsos Synovate poll, and have the highest average historical turnout rates.

Region/Turnout 1997 2002 2007 Kenyatta Support Odinga Support
Central 74.1 66.1 82.1 88.1 6.4
Rift Valley 75.9 60.8 72.8 69 23.3
Eastern 72.6 60.9 65.9 41.8 52.7
Nyanza 67.2 55.6 76.2 9.8 83.8
Western 68.1 57.1 62 3.4 53.6
North Eastern 55.9 57.8 61.3 37.9 44.1
Coast 50.6 42.1 57 18.3 73
Nairobi 50.2 42 51.5 39.6 51.9


Could turnout rates be different this time?

The answer is yes, due to the following new variables:

New positions created in the constitution – governor, senator, and women representative – might attract new voters in addition to those who have in the past voted for the three other posts – president, member of parliament and councilor (now county representative). This might increase turnout across the board, but since Kenyatta is already “maxing” his turnout rates, Odinga might benefit from an overall increase in turnout rates.

The dropping of calls for “six piece” vote: Earlier in the cycle both candidates had insisted that voters should vote one straight ticket for the party for all six posts. However, since the nominations for both leading parties/coalitions were a total mess, many popular candidates did not get nominated on the “right parties.” Insisting on a six piece vote would have lowered voter turnout. However, without it everyone has a candidate to vote for in their preferred presidential candidate’s stronghold. This may increase turnout since it gives incentive for say someone running in an Odinga stronghold, who supports Odinga, but is not in Odinga’s party to still mobilize his supporters to the polls in competition with the candidate in Odinga’s party. Again, a higher average turnout rate will benefit Odinga.

The Numbers

The last polls before the election, about five of them, show a slim national lead for Odinga over Kenyatta, 45% to 43% on average. But since we do not know the make up of likely voters I would be reluctant to declare Odinga a favorite going into Monday. Kenyatta’s strongholds have historically had better turnout rates than Odinga’s.

And on the matter of polls, the following factors may lead to surprises on Monday night:

Desirability biases in the survey: We do not know to what extent those interviewed lied about who they support. And on this count Kenyatta runs the highest risk. Because of the International Criminal Court charges against him and his running mate William Ruto, many higher income and educated Kenyans have had concerns about their ability to run the country “via Skype.” If such people residing in the Rift Valley and Central regions lied to pollsters because they were expected to like Kenyatta then we may be in for a surprise on Monday night. If Odinga gets more than 35% of the votes in Rift Valley and about 15% in Central Kenya, he will win the presidential election in the first round.

Strategic voting: One of Odinga’s many challenges has been the Western Kenya region where Musalia Mudavadi comes from. Mudavadi is the third candidate, getting 6% on most polls nationally and about 34% in Western region. Odinga gets 53% in the region and Kenyatta 3%. In the event of a runoff, most of Mudavadi’s voters will break for Odinga. Mudavadi’s candidature centers on becoming a kingmaker and elevating his stature as a serious contender in the 2017 elections. But if Western voters who would support Odinga in the second round decide to do so in the first round, Odinga will have an outright victory in the first round.

Barring any surprises on Monday, especially with regard to turnout, the state of play is that the first round will be a close contest between Kenyatta and Odinga, with one or two percentage points separating them.

Kenyatta is a slight favorite to win the first round, but will be short of the 50% required for an outright win. In the second round, however, I expect Odinga to be a clear frontrunner since most of Mudavadi’s voters in Western Kenya will break for him. I also expect a little bit of anti-Ruto, Kenyatta’s running mate, votes in the Rift Valley going to Odinga. I am very curious as to what former President Daniel arap Moi’s promised major announcement on March 5 will be. Perhaps an endorsement?

All in all, I would put my money on Odinga becoming Kenya’s fourth president.

Ken Opalo is a graduate student of political science at Stanford University. Follow him at He blogs at

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