Monday, February 2, 2009

A Chaotic Kenya Vote and a Secret U.S. Exit Poll

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.Kenyan police officers charged at supporters of the opposition leader Raila Odinga in the Nairobi slum of Kibera last January.
Published: January 30, 2009

For three days in December 2007, Kenya slid into chaos as ballot counters steadily took what appeared to be a presidential election victory for the challenger and delivered it to the incumbent.

Noor Khamis/Reuters. Ballot-counting in Nairobi, Kenya, in December 2007. Violence erupted when the incumbent was finally declared the winner

As tensions mounted, Kenneth Flottman sat in Nairobi and grew increasingly frustrated. He had in his hands the results of an exit poll, paid for by the United States government, that supported the initial returns favoring the challenger, Raila Odinga.
Mr. Flottman, East Africa director for the International Republican Institute, the pro-democracy group that administered the poll, said he had believed that the results would promptly be made public, as a check against election fraud by either side. But then his supervisors said the poll numbers would be kept secret.
When the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was finally declared the winner amid cries of foul, Kenya exploded in violence that would leave more than 1,000 people dead before the two sides negotiated a power-sharing deal two months later. With rioters roaming the streets, Mr. Flottman sent an e-mail message to a colleague saying he was worried that, in rebuffing his pleas to release the poll, the institute had succumbed to political pressure from American officials.
"Supporting democracy and managing political outcomes are two different objectives for a nonpartisan, foreign-based organization or country," he wrote, "and sometimes there is a conflict that requires a choice."
A year later, the poll's fate remains a source of bitter contention, even as Kenya has moved to remake its electoral system. The failure to disclose it was raised at a Senate hearing in Washington last year and has been denounced by human rights advocates, who said it might have saved lives by nudging Mr. Kibaki to accept a negotiated settlement more quickly.
Exit polls, of course, are not always accurate, and it is impossible to know if events might have played out differently had the institute publicized the results, as it has usually done elsewhere. But in Kenya's highly contested election, this particular exit poll, conducted by an experienced American organization, might have been the best gauge of who really won.
An examination by The New York Times found that the official explanation for withholding the poll — that it was technically flawed — had been disputed by at least four people involved in the institute's Kenya operations. The examination, including interviews and a review of e-mail messages and internal memorandums, raises questions about the intentions and priorities of American observers as Kenyans desperately sought credible information about the vote.
None of those interviewed professed to know why the institute withheld the results. But the decision was consistent with other American actions that seemed focused on preserving stability in Kenya, rather than determining the actual winner.
When Mr. Kibaki claimed victory on Dec. 30, 2007, the State Department quickly congratulated him and called on Kenyans to accept the outcome, even though international observers had reported instances of serious ballot-counting fraud. American officials backed away from their endorsement the next day and ultimately pushed the deal that made Mr. Odinga prime minister.
After insisting for months that the poll was flawed, the institute released it last August — long past the point of diplomatic impact — after outside experts whom it had hired determined that it was valid. It showed Mr. Kibaki losing by about six percentage points.
The institute would not make anyone available for interviews. In written responses to questions, a spokeswoman, Lisa Gates, said that the decision to withhold the results was based on "a lack of confidence in the data, nothing else," and that any suggestions that it was at the behest of the United States government were "completely false." To clear its name, the institute has asked that the State Department inspector general look into whether the poll was withheld "at the request of U.S. government officials," she said.
"Had I.R.I. released a poll which we had reason to believe was incorrect," she said, "The New York Times would be asking — quite rightly — how we could have been so cavalier and irresponsible." The outside experts' review, she said, showed that the initial results were off by two percentage points.
American Preferences
The institute, which is mostly government financed, conducts campaign workshops, polling and election monitoring in emerging democracies. It has earned praise from elected officials in many countries. But at times, it has also been accused of meddling. In Haiti, for example, a former American ambassador asserted that the institute's operatives undermined reconciliation efforts among political opponents, contributing to a coup in 2004. The institute denied it.
The institute has worked in Kenya since 1992, but the 2007 presidential election provided its most high-profile assignment yet: monitoring the vote and conducting an exit poll for the United States Agency for International Development.
Despite initial economic successes and popular support after his election in 2002, Mr. Kibaki had gained a reputation for playing divisive tribal politics, and his administration had become tainted by scandal. Still, he had a good relationship with the Bush administration and generally supported American counterterrorism policies in East Africa.
Mr. Odinga was viewed skeptically by some in Washington because of his flamboyant manner and his background: he was educated in East Germany and named his son after Fidel Castro.
Heading the institute's Kenya operations in 2007 was Mr. Flottman, on leave from his job as a senior counsel for a major defense contractor. His position put him in close proximity to Western officials in Kenya, including the American ambassador, Michael E. Ranneberger, a career diplomat appointed in 2006. Mr. Flottman said he was surprised when, before the election, Mr. Ranneberger made public comments praising Mr. Kibaki and minimizing Kenyan corruption.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Flottman recalled, the ambassador was even more direct. A few months before the election, Mr. Ranneberger proposed releasing a voter survey showing Mr. Kibaki ahead and trying to block a roughly simultaneous one favoring Mr. Odinga, according to Mr. Flottman, who said he witnessed the episode during a meeting at the ambassador's office. The suggestion was dropped, he said, after the embassy learned that the pro-Odinga results were already out.
"It was clear, in my opinion, that the ambassador was trying to influence the perceptions of the Kenyan electorate, and thus the campaign," Mr. Flottman said.
In an interview, Mr. Ranneberger said it would have made little sense to try to squelch one of many pre-election polls, and he called the suggestion that he had tried to tilt the outcome toward Mr. Kibaki "utter nonsense." He added, "Odinga praised me for being very evenhanded."
Deepening Disquiet
Another episode deepened Mr. Flottman's unease. As the institute assembled its monitoring delegation, the ambassador objected to plans to include his predecessor, Mark Bellamy, according to two delegation members and a former State Department official. The institute withdrew the invitation, citing budget constraints.
"I don't know the reason why the ambassador wanted Mark off, but he did," said one delegation member, Joel D. Barkan. He added, "Perhaps somebody in the Kenya government made comments along the way."
Mr. Flottman reached the same conclusion during a conversation in which the ambassador remarked that the Kibaki camp viewed Mr. Bellamy as "antigovernment," according to an e-mail message that Mr. Flottman sent to institute officials in Washington shortly afterward.
"In sum," Mr. Flottman wrote, "the ambassador indicates respect for our independence, but seems to have some agenda in regard to the election itself."
Mr. Ranneberger disputed that characterization, saying that he played no role in Mr. Bellamy's removal. Mr. Bellamy declined to comment.
Under its contract, the institute was expected to consult with the Agency for International Development and the embassy before releasing the exit poll results, taking into account the poll's technical quality and "other key diplomatic interests."
Quality was not expected to be a concern. In addition to retaining a local polling firm it had used since 2000, the institute contracted with Clark C. Gibson, chairman of the political science department at the University of California, San Diego, to oversee the design of the questions, the surveying of voters and the collection of data.
When the voting ended and ballot-counting began, Mr. Gibson and others involved in the exit poll said they expected its results to be announced soon.
But senior institute officials decided to withhold it. Most opposed to releasing the numbers, Mr. Flottman said, was Constance Berry Newman, the institute board member leading the monitoring delegation. In an e-mail message to another delegation member shortly after the election, Mr. Flottman said Ms. Newman opposed "any kind of release from the outset — essentially suggesting it would be inflammatory and irresponsible."
Ms. Newman, who had worked with Mr. Ranneberger when she was the Bush administration's assistant secretary of state for African affairs, declined to comment. Mr. Ranneberger said he recalled speaking briefly with Ms. Newman or another institute official about the exit poll but had no role in deciding whether to release it.
By Dec. 29, two days after the voting, trouble was brewing. The Kenyan electoral commission's tally showed that Mr. Odinga's 370,000-vote lead had shrunk to 38,000 and was still dropping, prompting accusations of fraud. Demonstrators took to the streets in several cities, setting fires and threatening members of rival tribes. The next day, paramilitary officers converged on the ballot-counting center, and the commission chairman, on state-owned radio, declared Mr. Kibaki the winner.
Push for Information
Among those aware of the exit poll, there was rising clamor for its release.
"With the breakdown of the electoral commission, that is precisely the point when you want an exit poll to be released," said Mr. Barkan, a Kenya expert and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The institute remained silent until Jan. 15, 2008, when it issued a statement citing "concerns about the validity of the initial results."
In February, with Mr. Kibaki resisting calls to share power, the leaders of two Kenyan human rights groups wrote an opinion article for The Times, saying the refusal to release the poll had "fueled mistrust." After the poll was mentioned during a Senate hearing, the institute stepped up its public criticism of the poll, saying it "does not have confidence in the integrity of the data and therefore believes the poll is invalid."
Mr. Gibson said he told the institute that its technical concerns were baseless, to no avail. His contract barred him from publicly disclosing the polling data for six months, and in March of last year the institute asked him to sign a new contract that would have restricted him from speaking publicly about the institute's polling program without written permission.
"I think they were trying to shut me up," he said. "I refused to sign it."
In July, after his contract expired, Mr. Gibson and one of his doctoral students presented their analysis of the data at a seminar in Washington. A month later — one day before Mr. Gibson was to testify before Kenyan investigators — the institute announced that, after the outside review, it "now had confidence" in the poll and released the results.
For Mr. Odinga, bitterness lingers. He declined to sign a letter the institute drafted last month that amounted to an unqualified endorsement of its conduct. Instead, he wrote that while he appreciated the institute's past work, "the 2007 experience has cast some doubts among ordinary Kenyans."
"While I have no evidence to make me believe that I.R.I. withheld the exit poll results at the request of the U.S. government," Mr. Odinga wrote, "my supporters believe that had I.R.I. released those polls, they would have made a huge difference and even saved lives."

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