Nairobi, Kenya –
Fewer Kenyans voted Tuesday in a rare presidential election in which a former opposition leader, backed by the outgoing president, faces off against a brash vice president who portrays himself as an outsider. Turnout was just 56% an hour before polls closed, as some voters cited little hope of real change.
The election was considered close but calm. The East African economic hub could see a presidential runoff for the first time. Economic problems, such as widespread corruption, may outweigh the ethnic tensions that have marked past votes with sometimes deadly results.
Kenya stands out for its relatively democratic system in a region where some leaders are known to cling to power for decades. Its stability is crucial for foreign investors, lowly street vendors and troubled neighbors like Ethiopia and Somalia.
The leading candidates are Raila Odinga, a democracy advocate who has been running for the presidency for a quarter of a century, and Vice President William Ruto, 55, who has emphasized his journey from humble childhood to appeal to Kenyans. hard-pressed long accustomed to political dynasties.
“It is at times like this that the mighty and the mighty realize that it is the simple and the ordinary who ultimately make the decision,” Ruto told reporters. “I look forward to our victorious day.” He urged Kenyans to be peaceful and respect each other’s choices.
“I am confident that the Kenyan people will speak out for democratic change,” Odinga told reporters. A cheering crowd trotted alongside his convoy as he arrived in Nairobi to vote.
To win outright, a candidate needs more than half of all the votes and at least 25% of the votes in more than half of Kenya’s 47 counties. No outright winner means a runoff election within 30 days. Attention turned Tuesday night to classrooms and other vote-counting locations across the country as paper ballots were inspected one by one.
Results are due to be announced within a week, but impatience is expected if they don’t arrive before this weekend. “What we want to try to avoid is a long period of anxiety, of suspense,” said Bruce Golding, who heads the Commonwealth’s election watchdog group.
Outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, crossed the usual ethnic lines and angered Ruto by endorsing his old rival Odinga after their bitter 2017 election contest. But both Odinga and Ruto have chosen running mates for the largest ethnic group in the country, the Kikuyu.
Odinga, 77, made history by choosing Martha Karua, a former justice minister and the first woman to be a leading vice-presidential candidate, as her running mate. She has inspired many women in a country where female candidates commonly face harassment.
Rising food and fuel prices, debt at 67% of GDP, youth unemployment at 40%, and corruption put economic issues at the center of an election in which unregulated campaign spending put highlights the inequality of the country. But personalities still matter.
“We need mature people to lead, not someone who mistreats people. Someone who respects elders,” said 55-year-old teacher Rosemary Mulima, who arrived at a polling station on the outskirts of Nairobi to find about 500 people lined up before dawn. She had “very high” hopes for Odinga on her fifth try,
The Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission estimated the final turnout to be above 60%, well below 80% in the 2017 election. That would make it Kenya’s lowest turnout in 15 or even 20 years. The electoral commission registered less than half of the new voters it expected, only 2.5 million.
More than 6.5 million people had voted by noon, or about 30% of the 22 million registered.
“The problems of (the previous elections), the economy, everyday life, are still here,” said shopkeeper Adrian Kibera, 38. “We don’t have good options,” he said, calling Odinga too old and Ruto too inexperienced.
Difficulties with the electronic voting system were sometimes reported, with presidential candidate George Wajackoyah telling reporters that some voting kits in his stronghold were not working. Though polls were in low single digits, Wajackoyah and his promises to legalize marijuana raised questions about whether he could get enough votes to force a runoff.
The electoral commission said around 200 voting kits had failed out of more than 46,000, calling it “not widespread” and “normal” that technology breaks down at times.
Kenyans hope for a peaceful vote. Elections can be exceptionally problematic, as in 2007 when the country erupted after Odinga claimed his vote had been stolen and more than 1,000 people were killed. Ruto was charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity for his role in the violence, but his case ended amid allegations of witness tampering.
In 2017, the high court annulled the election results, a first for Africa, after Odinga challenged them for irregularities. He boycotted the new vote and declared himself “people’s president”, raising accusations of treason. A public handshake between him and Kenyatta defused 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 all Kenyans,” the president told reporters.