Kenya race coming down to the wire

2013-03-08 12:46
Electoral workers engage in a part of the tally verification process at the National Tallying Canter in Nairobi, Kenya. (Ben Curtis, AP)

Electoral workers engage in a part of the tally verification process at the National Tallying Canter in Nairobi, Kenya. (Ben Curtis, AP)

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Nairobi - Kenya's drawn-out race for president was coming down to the wire on Friday, with the leading candidate hovering right at the 50% mark needed to avoid a runoff with his top challenger. Security forces eager to maintain peace began appearing in the street.

As the last ballots came in, the percentage held by Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta flipped and flopped over the 50% line. His opponent, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, needed a strong performance in the remaining ballots to force a second round runoff.

Kenya's capital, Nairobi, has been sleepy since Monday's vote for president, the country's first election since its 2007 vote sparked tribe-on-tribe violence that killed more than 1 000 people. But groups of security forces in riot gear took to the streets on Friday in regions of the city that could turn tumultuous after results are announced.

At the national tallying centre, agents for Odinga began getting rowdy, interrupting officials who were reading out election results. They accused the commission of making up some figures, echoing allegations by Odinga's camp on Thursday that some figures had been doctored. The election commission denied the allegations.

"They are adding figures to Uhuru and subtracting from Raila, and we will show the proof. I have completely lost faith in this thing," said Frederick Odhiambo, one of the Odinga agents.

Eight candidates ran for president, so if any of the bottom six captures a significant portion of the outstanding ballots, that could also push Kenyatta below 50%.

A Kenyatta win could have far-reaching consequences with Western relations. The son of Kenya's founding father, Kenyatta faces charges at the International Criminal Court for his role in directing some of the 2007 postelection violence.

The US has warned of "consequences" if Kenyatta is to win, as have several European countries. Britain, which ruled Kenya up until the early 1960s, has said they would only have essential contact with a president Kenyatta.

Vital security role

The US Embassy in Kenya is larger than any American mission in Africa, underscoring Kenya's strong role in US foreign policy. The US also has military forces stationed here near the border with Somalia. Kenya, the lynchpin of East Africa's economy, plays a vital security role in the fight against Somali militants.

Kenyatta's ICC trial is set to begin in July and could take years, meaning that if he wins he may have to rule Kenya from The Hague for the first half of his presidency. Another option is, as president, to decide not to go. But that decision would trigger an international arrest warrant and spark even more damaging effects for Kenya's standing with the West.

Kenyatta has promised to report to The Hague even if he wins the presidency.

Whether or not Kenyatta finishes with over half of the votes, most observers expected legal challenges to be launched after a myriad of failures in the systems Kenya's electoral commission set up.

The first problems were evident right as the voting began early on Monday. An electronic voter ID system intended to prevent fraud failed across the country for lack of electricity in some cases and overheating computers in others. Vote officials instead used manual voter rolls.

After the polls closed, results were to be sent electronically to Nairobi, where officials would quickly tabulate a preliminary vote count in order to maximize transparency after rigging accusations following the 2007 vote. But that system failed too. Election officials have indicated that computer servers overloaded but have yet to fully explain the problem.

On Tuesday, as the early count system was still being used, election results showed more than 330 000 rejected ballots, an unusually high number. But after the count resumed with the arrival in Nairobi of manual tallies, the number of rejected ballots had dropped to almost nothing, and the election commission on Thursday gave the head-scratching explanation that the computer was mistakenly multiplying the number of rejected ballots by a factor of eight.

Public reaction

Odinga's camp on Thursday said some votes had been doctored and called for a halt to the tallying process. It said the tallying process "lacked integrity". A day earlier, Kenyatta's camp accused the British high commissioner of meddling in the election and asked aloud why there were an unusually high number of British troops in the country.

The election commission said it expected to have final results by the end of Friday, though observers said it was still possible the count would go into the weekend.

There were fears going into the election that the violence that rocked Kenya five years ago would return. A separatist group on the coast launched attacks on Monday that ended in the deaths of 19 people, but the vote and its aftermath has otherwise been largely peaceful.

However, it's the announcement of results that could stir protests, especially if the supporters of either Odinga or Kenyatta feel robbed. Diplomats say that the public reaction to an election loss by the losing candidate will set the tone for whether violence breaks out.

The political battle between the families of Kenyatta and Odinga goes back to the 1960s and to the two candidates' fathers. Jomo Kenyatta was Kenya's first president after the end of British colonial rule. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga served as the country's first vice president then. The two later had a falling out.

If a runoff is declared, it would be most likely held in late April, depending on how long legal challenges take.

- SAPA
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