Kenya parliamentary polls test fragile coalition

Kenyans voted on Wednesday for five parliamentary seats that will decide who holds the majority, a test of stability in the East African nation still recovering from a deadly post-election crisis.

It was the first voting since President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed December re-election set off ethnic violence that killed at least 1 300 people and displaced 300 000 more.

Armed police in riot gear with dogs patrolled polling stations in a reminder of the concerns over possible trouble.

”I think if the by-elections are peaceful and transparent and are generally regarded that way, that will show that Kenya has learned from the experience of December and is moving ahead democratically,” United States ambassador Michael Ranneberger told Reuters.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Party (ODM) and Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) are each seeking to boost their numbers in Parliament. But analysts fear violence could mar the exercise.

”We learnt a lot with what happened in the last election. This time I have no fear of violence. We are not thinking of tribes,” said Issak Mureithi (45) a voter in Nairobi’s Embakasi constituency.

The by-elections are to fill seats where two ODM legislators were shot dead and another two constituencies that remained undeclared in the chaotic aftermath of the election.

The fifth seat is that of Kenya’s parliamentary speaker, who resigned from his constituency after getting the speaker’s chair.

Another two ODM legislators — Roads Minister Kipkalya Kones and Home Affairs Assistant Minister Lorna Laboso — were killed in a plane crash on Tuesday. Flags flew at half-mast on Wednesday in mourning.

Rigging claims
In Embakasi constituency, ODM candidate Esther Passaris accused rival PNU officials of rigging, the same kind of claims that set off rioting after the December poll.

”The PNU agents in every polling station are bribing voters, in front of the ECK. This is exploiting poverty,” Passaris, a former beauty queen and entrepreneur, told reporters.

PNU candidate Ferdinand Waititu denied Passaris’ accusation.

Odinga and Kibaki formed a coalition government in April, with Odinga, a former political prisoner, becoming only the second prime minister of Kenya since the East African country won independence from Britain in 1963.

Odinga’s party won 99 seats to 43 for Kibaki’s in the December vote. But in practice it is an even split because Kibaki-allied legislators from other parties joined PNU to make up half the Parliament.

Campaigns for the by-elections were marred by some violence among supporters, but nothing like the full-scale fighting earlier this year.

Kilgoris constituency in the Rift Valley was expected to be a flashpoint due to tension between Maasais — who believe the area to be their ancestral land — and the Kipsigis, who settled there.

Polls close at 3pm GMT and results are due overnight or early on Thursday. – Reuters 2008

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