, NAIROBI, Mar 4 – Kenyans go to the polls Monday for the first time since bloody post-poll violence five years ago for which a top presidential candidate faces trial for crimes against humanity.
Neck-and-neck rivals for the presidency, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his deputy Uhuru Kenyatta, have publicly vowed there will be no repeat of the bloodshed that followed the disputed 2007 polls in which over 1,100 people died and some 600,000 were displaced.
But tensions are running high and Kenyans of all religions prayed on Sunday that the polls – which open shortly before dawn at 0300 GMT and close before dusk at 1400 GMT – will pass off calmly.
Some 14.3 million Kenyans are eligible to vote in Monday’s multiple elections for a new president, parliamentarians, governors, senators, councillors and special women’s representatives.
More than 99,000 police have been deployed to ensure the vote is peaceful, and about 23,000 observers, including 2,600 international monitors, will be on hand, officials say.
Fearing violence or intimidation, many Kenyans have left the cities to wait out the vote in their home villages.
Trials expected to start later this year at The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for Kenyatta and running mate William Ruto have raised the stakes: should they win the vote, the president and vice-president could be absent on trial for years.
Observers have warned to expect some disruptions – all of Kenya’s elections have seen some degree of conflict and poll-related attacks have already taken place – though foreign diplomats say they are cautiously optimistic.
Watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch have said the risk of renewed violence is “perilously high”.
Tens of thousands of party loyalists roared their support as Kenyatta and Odinga held competing rallies in central Nairobi on Saturday in the closing hours of campaigning.
Both men have voiced confidence of securing an absolute majority – necessary to avoid a second-round runoff – although with eight candidates in the race many expect a further vote next month.
“I want to promise you that we will change Kenya for the better,” said Kenyatta, dancing on stage alongside Ruto.
“Bring even the sick to vote,” urged Odinga in turn, after releasing a white dove to symbolise peace.
In one of the most complex polls Kenya has ever held, voters will cast six ballots at one of more than 30,000 polling stations country-wide.
The electoral commission will have seven days to announce the results.
The 2007-2008 violence exposed widespread disenchantment with the political class, deep tribal divisions and shattered Kenya’s image as a beacon of regional stability.
More checks are in place this time to limit vote rigging, while a new constitution devolves powers and has made the poll less of a winner-take-all race.
But the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) has condemned evidence of politicians handing out cash for votes.