Kenyans vote in close election, violence feared

Guarded by police, Kenyans voted on Thursday in a presidential election preceded by violence, tainted by allegations of rigging and likely to be the closest in more than four decades since independence from Britain.

President Mwai Kibaki (76) having unseated the East African country’s 24-year ruling party in 2002, himself faces the possibility of losing power, despite a sound economic record.

Challenger Raila Odinga—a businessman and former political prisoner under Kibaki’s predecessor Daniel arap Moi—has garnered support among members of tribes who believe the president’s Kikuyu tribe have had it too good.

As dawn broke, thousands of people from the humid coast to the shantytowns and lush highlands queued at polling stations, many guarded by armed security forces.

“Kibaki is a true leader, he will win,” said businesswoman Wanjiku Muteru in Kibaki’s Othaya constituency, a tea-and-coffee-growing area.

“It is a shame there are loud-mouthed people spoiling his name. These selfish elements are only thinking with their stomachs,” she said.

In the Lake Victoria town of Kisumu, Joseph Onyango was equally convinced that Kibaki’s rival Odinga would win.

“It’s now or never for Raila. Among the 42 tribes in Kenya, Raila has support in each and every one except the Kikuyus.”

Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) held a small lead over Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) in polls leading up to the vote, which began at 6am (3am GMT).

Most political analysts say the outcome is too close to predict.

While some analysts say the possibility of a second transfer of power in two elections demonstrates the maturity of Kenya’s democracy, others fear it heightens the prospects of trouble.

Policemen killed

Despite the formal end of campaigning, there was frantic political manoeuvring by both sides on the eve of election, with the opposition accusing the government of planning fraud.

Mobs in the western opposition heartland of Nyanza province killed at least three policemen and beat up a dozen others accused of being disguised as PNU party agents to gain access to polling stations and stuff ballot boxes.

Keen to preserve Kenya’s reputation as an oasis of stability in a turbulent region, Kibaki denied the fraud allegations.

He said in a statement on Wednesday the government had no intention of rigging the voting and urged Kenya’s 14-million voters to “let fair play, honesty and democracy prevail”.

Although it has never suffered the all-out wars that have ravaged many of its neighbours, Kenya nevertheless has a history of election violence, and people were braced for more.

In Kenya’s biggest slum, part of Odinga’s Nairobi constituency, his supporters built bonfires to keep a vigil over polling stations as truckloads of military police patrolled the rubbish-strewn streets.

Kibaki supporters say his record on stability and development—including 5% average annual economic growth—means he deserves another five-year term.

Odinga supporters, however, say the president has betrayed Kenyans by failing to stamp out corruption.

While 62-year-old Odinga’s outspokenness contrasts with Kibaki’s more measured character, they differ little in policy.

Both are pledging to increase economic growth, provide free secondary education, and consolidate democratic advances.

Voting ends at 5pm (2pm GMT).

First official results are expected on Friday afternoon, but Kenyan media may give a picture overnight.

The winner will be the candidates who receives more votes than his closest challenger, plus 25 percent in five of the eight provinces. - Reuters

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