Kenya’s near presidential election draws fewer voters

Nairobi, Kenya — Fewer Kenyans voted Tuesday in an unusual presidential election that pitted a longtime opposition leader backed by the outgoing president against the brash vice president who bills himself as the outsider. Turnout was just 56% an hour before polls closed, as some voters cited little hope for real change.

The election was considered close but calm. East Africa’s economic center could face a presidential election for the first time. Economic issues such as widespread corruption may outweigh the ethnic tensions that have marked previous votes with sometimes deadly results.

Kenya is a standout with its relatively democratic system in a region where some leaders are notorious for clinging to power for decades. Stability is crucial for foreign investors, the humblest street vendors and troubled neighbors like Ethiopia and Somalia.

The top candidates include Raila Odinga, a democracy campaigner who has been battling for the presidency for a quarter of a century, and 55-year-old Vice President William Ruto, who highlighted his journey from a humble childhood to appeal to struggling Kenyans who long accustomed to political dynasties.

“At moments like these, the powerful and powerful come to the realization that it is the simple and ordinary people who ultimately make the choice,” Ruto told journalists. “I’m looking forward to our victory day.” He urged Kenyans to be peaceful and respect the choices of others.

“I am confident that the people of Kenya will speak loudly for democratic change,” Odinga told reporters. A cheering crowd jogged beside his convoy as he arrived in Nairobi to vote.

To win outright, a candidate needs more than half of all votes and at least 25% of the votes in more than half of Kenya’s 47 counties. No real winner means a second round in 30 days. Attention turned to classrooms and other vote-counting locations across the country on Tuesday night as the paper ballots were inspected one by one.

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Results should be available within a week, but impatience is expected if they don’t come before this weekend. “What we want to avoid is a long period of fear and tension,” said Bruce Golding, who leads the Commonwealth election monitoring group.

Outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, broke customary ethnic boundaries and angered Ruto by backing his longtime rival Odinga after their bitter election campaign in 2017. But both Odinga and Ruto have chosen running mates from among the biggest ethnic group of the country, the Kikuyu.

Odinga, 77, made history by choosing running mate Martha Karua, a former justice minister and the first woman to run for the deputy presidency. She has inspired many women in a country where female candidates are often harassed.

Rising food and fuel prices, debt of 67% of GDP, youth unemployment of 40% and corruption put economic issues at the center of an election in which unregulated campaign spending highlighted the country’s inequality. But personalities are still important.

“We need mature people to lead, not someone who abuses people. Someone who respects the elderly,” said 55-year-old teacher Rosemary Mulima, who arrived at a polling station on the outskirts of Nairobi and saw about 500 people queuing before dawn. She had “very high” expectations of Odinga on his fifth attempt,

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission estimated that the eventual turnout would be above 60%, much lower than the 80% in the 2017 elections. That would make Kenya’s lowest turnout in 15 or even 20 years. The Election Commission signed less than half of the new voters it had hoped for, just 2.5 million.

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By noon, more than 6.5 million people had voted, or about 30% of the 22 million registered people.

“The problems of (the previous elections), the economy, everyday life, are still there,” said 38-year-old shopkeeper Adrian Kibera. “We don’t have good choices,” he said, calling Odinga too old and Ruto too inexperienced.

Problems were sometimes reported with the electronic voting system, and presidential candidate George Wajackoyah told reporters that some voting kits in his stronghold were not working. Though polls were low, Wajackoyah and his pledges to legalize marijuana raised questions about whether he could draw enough votes to force a second round.

The electoral commission said about 200 voting kits had failed out of more than 46,000, calling it “not widespread” and “normal” for technology to break sometimes.

Kenyans hope for a peaceful mood. Elections can be extremely disturbing, such as in 2007 when the country exploded after Odinga claimed his vote had been stolen and more than 1,000 people were killed. Ruto was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for his role in the violence, but his case was dropped following charges of witness tampering.

In 2017, the Supreme Court quashed the election results, a first in Africa, after Odinga challenged them over irregularities. He boycotted the new vote and proclaimed himself ‘People’s President’, on charges of treason. A public handshake between him and Kenyatta calmed the crisis.

This is probably Odinga’s last attempt. Ruto and Odinga have said they will accept the official results – if the vote is free and fair. “It is the hope of every Kenyan,” the president told reporters.

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