Kibaki in close fight to keep power in Kenya

Early forecasts showed Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki in a close fight on Friday with his main challenger after an election diplomats praised as smooth, despite sporadic violence and rigging claims by both sides.

An exit poll gave Kibaki the lead, but partial tallies compiled by three local broadcasters put his rival, Raila Odinga, ahead in the race to lead East Africa’s biggest economy.

As official counting went on slowly at a Nairobi conference centre surrounded by armed guards, the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) said formal results would begin trickling in throughout Friday but might stretch into Saturday.

The Institute for Education in Democracy, a respected NGO, gave Kibaki 50,3% versus 40,7% for his former ally Odinga, but its figures were based on just 311 polling stations of a total of 27 000.

Unofficial results by three of Kenya’s main television stations, taken from tallies at counting centres, all put Odinga in the lead. The latest, from NTV at 4.50am, gave him 631 679 votes, versus 321 929 for the president.

About 14-million Kenyans were eligible to vote, although analysts expect turnout to have been between eight and 10 million.

Local TV said a number prominent figures had lost their parliamentary seats, including Kenya’s 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, Vice-President Moody Awori, Health Minister Paul Sang and Information Minister Mutahi Kagwe.

Another big name, Kamlesh Pattni — a 45-year-old businessman accused of being the architect of a graft scandal that nearly ruined Kenya’s economy — also looked set to lose his bid to win a Nairobi seat.

Voters throughout the East African country, from its Indian Ocean coast to its lush green highlands and northern reaches touching Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, turned out enthusiastically on Thursday, forming long queues everywhere.

‘Let the people decide’

As tension rose ahead of the country’s closest election since independence from Britain in 1963, each side accused the other of trying to rig the polls, but the ECK had sharp words for them after they complained publicly.

”We … think we have done the best we could do in the circumstances,” ECK chairperson Samuel Kivuitu told a news conference in the early hours of Friday. ”Let the people of Kenya decide. Anything else is just stories.”

Kenyan voting largely follows tribal and geographical lines, and analysts said it was too early to call the final result.

Diplomats say this poll is only the second truly democratic one in a nation that spent 39 years under single-party rule, broken by Kibaki with his landslide victory in 2002.

Kibaki (76) wants a second term before retiring to his highland tea farm after a political career spanning Kenya’s post-independence history.

With a record of average economic growth of 5%, he has the support of his Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s largest and most economically powerful, but trailed narrowly in pre-vote polls.

Odinga (62) wants to be the first in his Luo tribe to take the country’s top job. That was the unrealised dream of his father, Kenya’s first vice-president, whose falling out with founding President Jomo Kenyatta seeded the Luo-Kikuyu rivalry.

Kibaki came to power after Odinga allied with him in 2002, but the two had a bitter split that echoed history. Were Odinga to win, he would make Kibaki the first of Kenya’s three sitting presidents to be ousted by the ballot box.

Diplomats and observers praised the smoothness of the vote, despite delays and bloodshed that included three deaths, most of it blamed on political in-fighting.

Election day violence is a regular feature of Kenya’s polls, despite its reputation for stability in a war-torn region. — Reuters

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