People line up to cast their vote in Kenya's general election in Eldoret. Brian Inganga/PA

Kenyans go to the polls to choose next president in close-fought election race

The country is hoping for an orderly transition of power after almost a decade under two-term President Uhuru Kenyatta.

KENYA VOTED FOR a new president today against a backdrop of economic hardship and growing disenchantment with the political elite, with voting largely peaceful but producing low turnout in some areas.

The country is hoping for an orderly transition of power after almost a decade under two-term President Uhuru Kenyatta, but concerns about vote-rigging linger after past election disputes triggered deadly unrest.

Deputy President and erstwhile heir-apparent William Ruto, 55, is running against Raila Odinga, the 77-year-old veteran opposition leader now backed by longtime rival Kenyatta after a stunning shift in allegiances.

Voters lined up well before dawn to cast their ballots in what has been billed as a key test for democracy in a country where citizens have become frustrated with political leaders and their failure to deliver on their promises.

By 4pm (2pm Irish time), 10 hours after polling began, turnout was at just over 56% of the 22 million registered voters, according to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

Comparable figures for the August 2017 election were not immediately available, but overall turnout then reached 78%

Polls had largely closed by 10pm (8pm Irish time), with some stations reporting sparse turnout as they shut their doors at 5pm, when voting was due to finish.

Polling stations whose opening was delayed were continuing to admit voters, IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati said in a press briefing, urging Kenyans to be patient as election officials worked late into the night, counting votes.

kenya-general-elections-voting William Ruto, Kenya's sitting deputy president and a presidential candidate under the Kenya Kwanza Alliance, casts his ballot. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

“We call for patience among Kenyans as we undertake this rigorous exercise and also endeavour to complete this exercise as soon as possible,” he said.

No presidential election outcome has gone uncontested since 2002, and there will be an anxious wait for this year’s results which are not expected for several days.

Hope for fair vote

Pressure is on the IEBC to ensure a free and fair vote in all six polls – for the presidency as well as for senators, governors, lawmakers, woman representatives and some 1,500 county officials.

The IEBC acknowledged that about 200 electronic voter registration devices had failed, out of a total of more than 46,000.

Polling was suspended in Wajir, a county bordering Somalia, after a gunfight left election officials trapped inside an office where ballots were stored, the IEBC said.

The suspension of local polls triggered a protest in western Nakuru county, but police said late Tuesday that the country had largely “remained calm and peaceful with no major incidents to report”.

Many people said they hoped this year’s vote would make their lives easier as they struggle to put food on the table amid soaring inflation and a crippling drought.

“I have come to vote to pick someone who will bring change to this country,” said unemployed 34-year-old Ruth Iminza in the Nairobi slum of Kibera.

“Everything has gone up including school fees for our children.”

kenya-election Election officials count votes at a polling station in Kilimera Primary School in Nairobi. Mosa'ab Elshamy Mosa'ab Elshamy

Analysts have suggested that Odinga, a one-time political prisoner and former prime minister who is making his fifth stab at the presidency, could edge past his younger rival.

If neither wins more than 50%, Kenya will stage a run-off for the first time in its history.

Ruto has painted the election as a battle between ordinary “hustlers” and “dynasties” – the Kenyatta and Odinga families that have dominated Kenyan politics since independence from Britain in 1963.

Since neither man belongs to the dominant Kikuyu tribe, which has produced three of the country’s four presidents, the election will open a new chapter in Kenya’s history.

If Odinga wins, his running mate Martha Karua will become deputy president, the first woman to hold the post.

‘We want peace’

Kenya’s international partners are closely watching the vote in a country deemed a beacon of regional stability.

Both Odinga and Ruto have urged a peaceful election, but fears remain that if the loser challenges the outcome – as widely expected – there could be unrest.

Security was tight on Tuesday, with more than 150,000 officers deployed across the country of about 50 million.

The trauma of the 2007 poll, which was followed by politically motivated ethnic clashes that killed more than 1,100 people, runs deep.

Odinga’s challenge to the 2017 election result was met with a heavy-handed police response that left dozens dead.

Some observers say economic pressure could vie with tribal allegiance as the big motivator for voters in a country where a third of the population lives in poverty.

The new president will have to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, youth unemployment, a $70-billion debt mountain and entrenched corruption.

But first, he will have to make peace with his opponent, Kenyans say.

“There should be no violence. Whoever wins, we will support them and the person who fails should support the winner,” said unemployed Mary Musera, who woke up at 3am to vote in Kibera.

“We want peace.”

© AFP 2022

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