Kenyans vote Monday in a presidential election that will test whether the east African nation can restore its reputation as one of Africa’s more stable democracies after a lethal ethnic rampage erupted following the 2007 poll.
Outgoing President Mwai Kibaki, the candidates and civil-society groups have all appealed for a peaceful poll after the disputed vote five years ago unleashed a wave of killing by rival tribes that lasted weeks and left more than 1,200 dead.
“I also make a passionate plea for all of us to vote peacefully. Indeed, peace is a cornerstone of our development,” Mr. Kibaki, barred from seeking a third five-year term, told Kenyans in a televised address before polling day.
Yet, as in 2007, the race has come down to a high-stakes head-to-head between two candidates, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, and once again both will depend heavily on votes from loyalists of rival tribes.
Though well ahead of six other contenders, polls suggest neither may be able to command enough ballots for an outright victory in the first round, which could set the stage for a tense run-off tentatively set for April 11. A narrow first-round victory for either could raise prospects for legal challenges.
Kenya’s neighbours are watching nervously, after their economies felt the shockwaves when violence five years ago shut down trade routes running through east Africa’s biggest economy. Some landlocked states have stockpiled fuel and other materials.
The United States and other Western states are worried about the conduct of a poll in a state seen as a vital ally in the regional battle against militant Islam. Adding to election tensions, al-Shabaab militants, battling Kenyan peacekeeping troops in Somalia, issued a veiled threat days before the vote.
But the West also frets about the result of the presidential race. One of the top candidates, Mr. Kenyatta, is indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, accused with his running mate William Ruto of instigating the post-2007 vote violence. He denies the charges, but if he wins it would present a diplomatic dilemma for Western states who donate hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
“There are those who said that Uhuru and Ruto will not run because we are facing cases in Europe, but God has opened that road for us so that people can decide,” Mr. Kenyatta told a final rally in Nairobi’s central park on Saturday. Like other candidates, he called on his supporters to vote peacefully and promised he would accept any result.
Many Kenyans, hoping for a peaceful vote, say memories of the brutal killings by gangs armed with machetes, knives and bows and arrows are still fresh enough to deter a repeat. Shopkeepers have run down stocks and some people in mixed tribal areas have returned to their homelands elsewhere, a few worried by threatening leaflets.
In the teeming slum of Kibera in central Nairobi, where Luos and Kikuyus live side by side, Samuel Kitai, 60, a grain miller whose store was looted in the 2007 violence, was taking no chances. Pointing inside his largely empty corrugated iron shack, he said: “I usually have maize here, rice and everything, but now you can see the store is empty.”