Kenyans queued in large numbers to vote yesterday in an electoral showdown between the country’s foremost political dynasties, as the two sides traded barbs about the fairness of the ballot.
Shrouded in fears of violence, the vote pits President Uhuru Kenyatta, the 55-year-old businessman son of Kenya’s founding president, against Raila Odinga, a 72-year-old former political prisoner and son of Kenya’s first vice-president.
The rivals are facing each other for the second time, with opinion polls putting them neck-and-neck after two months of campaigning marked by fiery rhetoric but public speeches largely free of the ethnic hate that has sullied previous contests.
Were Odinga to win, it would upend the political dominance of the Kikuyu ethnic group, which has supplied three of Kenya’s four presidents since independence from Britain in 1963.
The razor-thin polling has increased the chances of glitches – innocent or otherwise – giving grounds for the loser to complain about the result, as Odinga did in 2007 and in 2013, despite a high-tech electronic voting system.
A decade ago, vote tallying was abruptly stopped and the incumbent president declared the winner, triggering an outcry from Odinga’s camp followed by outbreaks of ethnic violence in which 1,200 people were killed and 600,000 displaced.
International Criminal Court cases against Kenyatta and his now-deputy, William Ruto, for helping direct that violence collapsed for lack of evidence.
The government has deployed more than 150,000 security personnel, including wildlife rangers, to protect 41,000 polling stations. Voting mostly started smoothly, the election commission said, despite some isolated incidents and delays.
In coastal Lamu county, where suspected Somali militants have killed 15 men in the past month, voting had not begun by 2 p.m. in some areas because of insufficient helicopters to ferry around materials, said Adan Mohamed, county elections manager.
In addition to a new president, Kenyans are electing lawmakers and local representatives, the result of a post-2007 constitutional shake-up designed to devolve power and reduce the “winner takes all” nature of the presidential race that raised the stakes enough to help unleash the ethnic violence.