Kenyans lined up before dawn on Tuesday to cast their ballots in a high-stakes election that has put the East African powerhouse on edge as two political heavyweights battle it out for the presidency.
Kenyans are praying for a peaceful transfer of power after nearly a decade under President Uhuru Kenyatta, but concerns about vote fraud remain in a nation still reeling from previous election disputes that turned deadly.
More than 22 million people are registered to vote in the election, which comes amid soaring food and fuel prices, a brutal drought that has left millions hungry and deep disillusionment with the political elite, especially among young people.
The deputy president and former heir apparent to William Ruto, 55, is up against Raila Odinga, the 77-year-old veteran opposition leader who is now backed by his long-time rival Kenyatta after a stunning shift in political allegiance.
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Ruta, who describes himself as a “crook-in-chief” who protects the poor, was among the first to vote in his Rift Valley stronghold on what he called “D-Day”.
“I am confident that the people of Kenya will make the right choice that will lead Kenya into the future,” he said. “We must all respect the choice of Kenyans and I look forward to the day of victory.”
In Odinga’s stronghold in the lakeside city of Kisumu, voters queued hundreds of meters in the dark outside polling stations as motorcyclists drove past honking horns and whistles.
“I woke up early to go and choose my leader who can bring change. I have hope for that,” Moses Otieno Onam, 29, told AFP.
Polling stations opened at 06:00 (03:00 GMT) and are due to close at 17:00 (14:00 GMT).
Analysts have suggested in recent days that Odinga, a former political prisoner and former prime minister who is making his fifth bid for the top job, could narrowly edge out his younger rival.
But if none of them get more than 50 percent, Kenya will be forced to hold a second round for the first time in its history.
Call for a peaceful vote
Despite mudslinging during voting and widespread misinformation, the campaign was largely peaceful, unlike previous elections.
The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission is under pressure to ensure free and fair voting in all six polling stations — for the presidency, as well as for senators, governors, legislators, women’s representatives and about 1,500 county officials.
But the election has already faced some disruptions, with six IEBC officials arrested on Monday and the commission suspending several local elections due to faulty ballots.
Kenya’s international partners are closely watching the vote in a country seen as a beacon of stability in the restive region, with diplomats expressing cautious optimism that it will pass largely without violence.
Both Odinga and Ruto have called for a peaceful vote, but fears remain that if the losing candidate contests the result – as many expect – the discord could spill over into street fighting.
Security measures have been stepped up, with more than 150,000 officers deployed.
The trauma of the 2007 elections, which were followed by horrific politically-motivated inter-ethnic clashes that left more than 1,100 people dead, still lingers.
And Odinga’s challenge to the 2017 election results, which saw then-enemy Kenyatta re-elected, was met with a violent police response that left dozens dead.
In 2017, the Supreme Court ordered a repeat vote, citing widespread irregularities.
Since 2002, not a single result of the presidential election has remained without an alternative, and this year’s results should be awaited with anxiety, which are not expected for several more days.
Since neither Ruta nor Odinga belong 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.
“Life Is Hard”
Ruto, who once sold chickens on the side of the road, portrayed the election as a battle between ordinary “shillers” trying to put food on the table and the “dynasties” of the Kenyatta and Odinga families who have dominated Kenyan politics since independence from Britain. in 1963. .
Some observers say economic pressures may compete with tribalism as a key factor driving voter behavior in a country where a third of the population lives in poverty.
Lawyers David Mware and George Wajakoya – an eccentric former spy who wants to legalize marijuana – are also running for president, but are likely to fall behind the frontrunners.
If Odinga wins, his running mate Martha Karua will become deputy president, the first woman to hold the post.
The new president will face tough challenges to get the economy back on its feet, rein in Kenya’s massive $70 billion debt and tackle the corruption that infects all strata of society.
Already badly hit by the Covid pandemic, which has put hundreds of thousands out of work, Kenyans are now grappling with skyrocketing inflation as the war in Ukraine sends prices of essential goods soaring.
“It has become a necessity (to vote) because life has become difficult. We need to elect someone to help this economy,” said unemployed Roland Kwatima, 29, as he cast his vote in Nairobi’s Kibera slum.