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Turnout high as Kenya votes for president

The incumbent and his main rival ran on similar themes and are in a tight race. Tribal loyalties could play a major role in deciding the winner.

December 28, 2007|Nicholas Soi and Robyn Dixon | Special to The Times

NAIROBI, KENYA — Kenya's democracy faced a major test Thursday as 14 million people voted in presidential and parliamentary elections marred by delays, preelection violence and opposition claims of vote fraud.

Turnout was high as many Kenyans rose before dawn, walked miles to the nearest polling station and stood for hours in line to vote.

The election, too close to call, could see an incumbent president voted out for the first time in Kenya, despite an era of economic growth and political stability under President Mwai Kibaki, 76.

Kenya is situated in one of Africa's most volatile and troubled regions, yet has one of the continent's most vibrant democracies.

Judith Atieno, 38, arrived at 5 a.m. at St Peter's Cleavers polling station in downtown Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, to cast her ballot.

"I am sure with my single vote things can change greatly," she said. "That's why I had to wake at 4 a.m., walk a distance of about 6.2 miles, all because I am sure my vote can make a change."

Kibaki has lagged behind his strongest challenger, Raila Odinga, 62, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement, in surveys this last year but closed the gap in recent weeks. Recent polls showed a difference between the two that was so close it fell within the margin of error.

The two candidates have run on similar platforms: free education, economic development, and the building of infrastructure such as roads and schools.

To monitor the election, 30,000 local and international observers were deployed. The chief observer for the European Union, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, said the situation was chaotic in places, but he had seen no evidence of fraud before counting began.

"There are some technical problems, but what is pleasing is that people are turning out to vote in large numbers and are doing so peacefully and patiently," he said.

Odinga found his name was missing from the voter rolls when he attempted to cast his ballot early Thursday. He told journalists that it was part of an effort by the government to rig the vote.

Kibaki's party rejected the claim as "divisive and false," saying Odinga's name was on the rolls, but he had gone to the wrong polling place.

Kibaki's National Rainbow Coalition, or NARC, defeated the ruling Kenya African National Union in 2002 elections, ending four decades of KANU rule, in a turning point for Kenyan democracy. The nation's first multiparty elections took place in 1992.

But critics say Kibaki failed to deliver on his promise to fight corruption and instead entrenched a narrow political elite from his Kikuyu tribe, known as the Mt. Kenya Mafia. NARC was dissolved in 2006 and Kibaki set up the Party of National Unity in September.

Odinga, a former political prisoner and son of Kenya's first vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, has participated in seven political parties over the years.

Tensions were high in the lead-up to the election, as Odinga accused the government of preparing to rig the vote. On the eve of elections, Kibaki denied accusations.

"The government has no intention whatsoever of rigging elections.

"Let us all embrace peace and let fair play, honesty and democracy prevail," he said in a statement.

More than 70 people died in preelection violence.

Odinga's supporters in the slum area Kibera set up roadblocks and checked the trunks of cars during the voting Thursday, looking for smuggled ballot papers.

"I am for change," said Moses Odera, 39, a businessman wearing jeans and a denim jacket. He and other opposition supporters planned to stay at the Olympic Primary School polling station in Kibera until the last vote was counted, in a bid to prevent fraud.

"My vote is to Raila, and I am convinced he will win. The government may try to rig the elections but will not succeed."

Kibaki supporter Raphael Chege, 46, a businessman from the Loitoktok district in Nairobi, said Kenya was not nearly as corrupt as it used to be.

"Corruption is dying, but it has to take some time," he said.

In Kenya, voter allegiances tend to run along tribal lines, although few acknowledge it.

The largest tribe, Kikuyu, is behind Kibaki, while Odinga has rallied support among his own tribe, the Luo, as well as other ethnic groupings.

Chege, a Kikuyu who supports Kibaki, said that many people would vote according to tribe.

"Tribalism in this country is a disease we should all eliminate as a society, and people need to be educated, especially by church leaders," he said.

Odera, the businessman in Kibera, a Luo, was supporting Odinga.

"They say we [Luo] are tribalists, but Kikuyus are the most tribalist. Raila is not a tribalist. He has been joined by many other tribes."

Casting his vote in his home area of Othaya in central Kenya, Kibaki expressed confidence he would win.

"I am sure we will win. Thank you Kenyans for giving me an opportunity, and I will not tire serving you."

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Special correspondent Soi reported from Nairobi and Times staff writer Dixon from Johannesburg, South Africa.

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