Swing Counties Key to Outcome of Kenya's Tight Presidential Vote

(Bloomberg) -- The winner of Kenya’s presidential elections on Tuesday is likely to be determined by voting in just nine of the country’s 47 counties, where the two main candidates are battling for dominance.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party and his main rival, opposition leader Raila Odinga, have roughly equal support in 38 of the East African nation’s counties, according to data provided by pollster Infotrak and risk analysts Control Risks. Jubilee is ahead in five of the battleground counties, while support for Odinga’s National Super Alliance, a five-party coalition, dominates in four, data from the two companies, Ipsos Kenya and Verisk Maplecroft show.

Swing Counties Key to Outcome of Kenya's Tight Presidential Vote

Odinga, 72, has failed on three previous occasions to win the presidency and is counting on his supporters turning out in large numbers to beat the incumbent. To win, he needs more than 50 percent of the vote and a quarter of ballots in half of the counties. Kenyatta, 55, won the last election in 2013 with a less than a tenth-of-a-percentage-point majority.

Both candidates need a strong voter turnout to secure victory, with three opinion polls this week showing Kenyatta has the support of as many as 48 percent of the electorate and Odinga with as much as 49 percent. A runoff election will be held within 30 days of the result of the Aug. 8 vote being declared if neither candidate wins a majority.

“Kenyatta’s chance of securing a first-round victory has dramatically fallen over the last two months due to a series of scandals and missteps during the campaign,” said Emma Gordon, an analyst with Verisk Maplecroft. The most prominent reason cited by voters was the government’s failure to manage a shortage of corn, a staple, and other foods after a regional drought curbed farm output, she said.

‘Anti-Kenyatta Vote’

“His mishandling of the maize shortage is likely to increase the anti-Kenyatta vote, thereby pushing more opposition or undecided voters to turn out on election day,” Gordon said.

Voting patterns in Kenya’s previous elections have been influenced by ethnic identity. In the 2013 vote, Kenyatta’s supporters in the Kikuyu community, the largest ethnic group, were shored up by backers of Vice President William Ruto, a Kalenjin who mobilized various ethnic groups in the Rift Valley -- a key voting bloc.

The opposition has made inroads into Jubilee’s support in that region, tapping discontent about issues including the high cost of living and food shortages, particularly among Kipsigis, who are part of the Kalenjin group, according to Mathias Muindi, an analyst at Control Risks. It’s also gained from Maasai discontent with the government in the Kajiado and Narok counties southwest of Nairobi over historical land grievances, he said.