Republican strategisT Nino Saviano is not who you would expect to find at the helm of a political campaign in Kenya.
But a Kenyan politician was so eager to win a seat in parliament that he brought Saviano, of Savi Political Consulting, to his dusty, rural hometown to craft an American-style, get-out-the-vote push.
There were no voters’ lists. Few people had landlines. Door-knocking was tough because houses were often many miles apart. So they held street rallies and collected the cell phone numbers from people who accepted free buttons, hats, and stickers from the campaign.
“You really have to get creative,” he said.
Washington may be broken, and politics beyond repair, but American campaign culture may well be our most significant export, especially this year in Kenya.
On Sunday, Kenya held an historic presidential election. If you look hard enough, you can find American fingerprints all over it.
Five years after a disputed presidential race ended with politicians inciting their supporters to terrible acts of violence, Kenya passed a new constitution to make its democracy work better. Instead of concentrating power in a winner-take-all presidency, some power will go to elected governors and local assemblies, just like in the United States.
Even the lingo is adapted from US politics, closely watched in Kenya because of President Obama’s heritage. Instead of swing voters, Nairobi pundits speak of “swing tribes” that will determine the outcome in a country that largely votes along ethnic lines.
At the campaign headquarters of presidential candidate Peter Kenneth, the walls are covered in maps and flip charts showing various blocs of voters. Kenneth has read “Audacity to Win,” David Plouffe’s book about the lessons of the Obama campaign, three times. Kenneth — like another candidate, Martha Karua — uses NationBuilder, a software program developed by a former John Kerry campaign aide that helps politicians rally support through Facebook and Twitter.
And this year, Kenya held its first presidential debate ever. All eight candidates shifted uncomfortably onstage and actually stopped talking when the moderator told them their time was up.
Compare that to the days of Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya for 28 years. His idea of campaigning was nodding to a crowd from a kingly chair on a decorated platform, while women’s groups sang to him in traditional garb. Moi rarely subjected himself to the indignity of answering questions on camera, and never to a televised battle of wits.
So is the United States a good influence on Kenyan politics?
Saviano thinks so.
“We tend to make candidates look more appealing,” he said, especially to voters outside of their own tribes.
But Western consultants don’t always play such a positive role.
Five years ago, Dick Morris, a key political adviser to President Clinton in the mid-1990s, offered his services pro bono to Raila Odinga, a presidential front-runner.
After Odinga lost narrowly in a vote that was widely seen as rigged, he called for street protests which quickly turned violent. Members of his ethnic group clashed with the ethnic groups of his top rivals.
One of those rivals, Uhuru Kenyatta, was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal, for allegedly orchestrating reprisal attacks. Kenyatta’s defense lawyer, Steven Kay, accused Morris of engineering popular protests instead of accepting the election results. Kay told the court that it was “a copycat production” of the unrest that brought another Morris client, Viktor Yushchenko, to power in Ukraine in 2005. Morris was eventually expelled from Kenya.
But those accusations haven’t stopped Odinga from becoming a front-runner again this year. Nor has the indictment at the Hague stopped Kenyatta from being a neck-and-neck favorite. To repair his image, Kenyatta hired Ed Staite, a British consultant who specializes in “reputation management.”
Karl Rove has nothing on these guys. With front-runners like this, it is easy to get cynical. It’s easy to conclude that politics everywhere is about money, power, and ethnic allegiances. If there is any hope that this crazy exercise will result in better governance — in folks at the top being more accountable to folks at the bottom — then it comes from Kenyans like Boniface Mwangi, a photojournalist who documented the political killings back in 2007.
“Kenyans from all tribes are on the same queue to vote,” he tweeted. “We should accept the outcome of that vote peacefully.”