NAIROBI — Kenyans lined up to vote in a high-stakes election on Tuesday, with the East African power center jittery as two political heavyweights clashed in a fierce race for the presidency.
Kenyans are praying for a peaceful transfer of power after nearly a decade under President Uhuru Kenyatta, but concerns over vote rigging linger in a nation still ravaged by previous election disputes that escalated into deadly violence.
More than 22 million people have registered for an election that is taking place amid rising food and fuel prices, an excruciating drought starving millions and deep disappointment in of the political elite, especially among young people.
Vice President and former heir to the throne William Ruto, 55, faces Raila Odinga, the 77-year-old veteran opposition leader who is now backed by Kenyatta after a surprising shift in political allegiances.
Before dawn, in the lakeside stronghold of Odinga, Kisumu, voters lined up for hundreds of meters in darkness outside polling stations as motorcyclists honked and whistled.
Moses Otieno Onam, 29, said he woke up at 3 a.m. to stand near the front of the queue in Obunga, an informal neighborhood in the city center.
“I got up early so I could go and choose my leader who could bring about change. I have hope in that,” he was quoted by AFP.
Polling stations opened at 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) and were due to close at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT).
Analysts have suggested in recent days that Odinga, a former political prisoner and former prime minister running for the post for the fifth time, could narrowly overtake his young rival.
But if no one wins more than 50%, Kenya would be forced to hold a second round for the first time in its history.
Despite widespread slander and misinformation, the election campaign was largely peaceful, unlike previous polls.
The Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission is under pressure to ensure a free and fair vote in all six elections – for the presidency, senators, governors, lawmakers, women’s representatives and around 1,500 county officials.
But the election has already run into trouble, as six IEBC officials were arrested on Monday and the commission suspended precinct or gubernatorial elections in several counties over erroneous ballots.
IEBC chief Wafula Chebukati promised that the body would not hesitate to take “strong action” against any official flouting of electoral laws.
KENYA THE ‘BEACON OF STABILITY‘
Kenya’s international partners are closely watching the vote in a country seen as a beacon of stability and democracy in a troubled region, and diplomats express cautious optimism that it will be largely non-violent.
Both Odinga and Ruto have called for a peaceful vote, but fears remain that if the losing candidate challenges the result – as expected – discord could erupt into street fights.
Security is reinforced, with more than 150,000 agents on duty.
The trauma of the 2007 elections, which followed a gruesome series of politically motivated ethnic clashes that left more than 1,100 people dead, is still great.
And Odinga’s challenge to the 2017 election result, which saw then opponent Kenyatta re-elected, was met with a brutal police response that left dozens dead.
The Supreme Court ordered a new execution in 2017, citing widespread irregularities in the counting process and mismanagement by the IEBC.
No presidential election result has gone uncontested since 2002, and this year’s results will be eagerly awaited, as they are not expected for several days.
“Kenya votes, East Africa holds its breath,” headlined the regional newspaper The East African.
With neither Ruto nor Odinga belonging to the dominant Kikuyu tribe that has produced three of the country’s four presidents, the election will open a new chapter in Kenya’s history.
‘JOBS, JOBS, JOBS’
Ruto, who said he sold roadside chickens, portrayed the election as a battle between ordinary ‘scammers’ and ‘dynasties’ – the Kenyatta and Odinga families, who have dominated Kenyan politics since independence of Great Britain in 1963.
Some observers say that in a country where a third of the population lives in poverty, economic pressures could rival tribal affiliations as a key factor in voting behavior.
“The revamped electoral checkerboard means the outcome will likely depend on the extent to which Odinga and Ruto can muster support outside their respective bases,” said Meron Elias, East and Southern Africa analyst at International. Crisis Group, in a note.
Lawyers David Mwaure and George Wajackoyah – the latter an eccentric ex-spy who wants to legalize marijuana – are also in the running but are likely to be well short of the favourites.
If Odinga wins, his vice president Martha Karua will become the first woman in office.
Both candidates pledged to get the economy back on its feet, stem Kenya’s massive $70 billion debt and tackle the corruption that infects all levels of society.
Kenyans, already hard hit by the Covid pandemic which has left hundreds of thousands out of work, are now battling rising inflation as war in Ukraine sends prices of basic necessities skyrocketing.
- Editor / additional report by AFP