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If You Think the U.S. Electoral System Is a Mess, Get a Load of What’s Happening Today in Kenya

- December 27, 2007

Americans like to complain — with good cause — about the way we go about selecting a president: an interminable primary/caucus “season,” the Electoral College, hanging chads, etc. But if you want to feel good about the US of A, look at the political trainwreck that may be occurring today — December 27 — as Kenyans go to the polls to select their president.

I’m no expert on Kenyan politics, but you probably know even less than I do, so I’ll try to bring you up to speed. If any experts are lurking, please feel free to correct any misinformation I’m about to pass along.

Kenya has a multiparty system. That’s where the fun begins. Many candidates (I’m not sure of exactly how many, but it may well be that nobody is sure of exactly how many), representing the many parties, are running.

Call the incumbent president A. Call his main rival B. Call all the other candidates C through a large number.

According to national polls, B is leading, trailed by A. No one else, including C (the third-ranked candidate) is even close.

And now the rules. This is where all the fun associated with multiparty elections lurches out of control.

In order to be elected, a candidate:

* Must win a plurality of the votes cast nationwide.

* Must win at least 25% of the votes cast in five of Kenya’s eight provinces.

* Must win a seat in Parliament.

Here’s how it seems to be playing out.

B, in the lead nationally, seems a good bet to carry a plurality nationwide, and he should also be able to meet the 5/8 requirement. However, a challenger (call him D) has come out of nowhere, supported (of course), by the party of A, to challenge B for his seat in Parliament. According to a story by Jeffrey Gettleman in the December 25 New York Times, D has been “sprinkling around 500-shilling notes (the equivalent of about $8) and winning over converts.” Nationally, D is a nonentity, but by the rules of Kenyan electoral politics, if he manages to win the seat then B would be out of luck, even if he fulfilled the first two requirements for election.

What about A, the incumbent who’s currently in second place? It turns out that he’s popular in some provinces, but his support is geographically concentrated. Even if he were to win a plurality nationally and carry his home district, as he might be able to do, it seems doubtful that he could meet the 5/8 criterion with B in the race.

If this scenario plays out as it looks like it could, B would find himself on the outside looking in, while A would go into a runoff against C, the third-ranked candidate nationally, even though in the first round C presumably would have gotten just a small fraction of the votes nationally and, like A, would not have met the 5/8 criterion. So the second- and third-place candidates would end up contesting the office, while D took over B’s seat in Parliament and B wound up with nothing at all.

Today is Election Day, so we may know the outcome soon. Or maybe not, if it takes a long time to count the votes and/or if it goes into a runoff. And even if goes into a runoff, there would still be no guarantee of a winner, given the combination of rules that determine the outcome.

In a situation with which I know you’re familiar, the loser ended up with an Academy Award and the Nobel Peace Prize. So perhaps there’s light at the end of this particular tunnel for B.