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Kenya's Deputy Prime Minister and presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta addresses his supporters during a campaign rally by the Jubilee coalition at the Homabay Stadium in western Kenya on March 1, 2013. Kenya will hold its general elections on March 4.Reuters

When millions of Kenyans queue up at voting stations in a key election on Monday, the shadow of a criminal court in The Hague will be looming over their decisions.

One of the front-runners in the presidential election, Uhuru Kenyatta, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in the violent aftermath of the last election, when at least 1,500 people were killed. So too has his running mate, William Ruto.

If they win, it could push Kenya towards diplomatic isolation. It's just one reason why Monday's election is among the most crucial in Kenya's history, and probably the most important in Africa this year. The outcome, and the risk of a violent reaction, will help determine whether political stability finally arrives in one of Africa's key democracies, five years after the chaos and bloodshed that followed the last vote.

Kenya has one of the most vibrant economies on the continent, with a fast-growing mobile technology sector that sets the pace for Africa. But its growth is projected to collapse if there is post-election violence on the scale that followed the 2007 election.

And if the two indicted criminals win the election, there will be "consequences" for Kenya's international relations, a senior U.S. official has warned. European countries have issued similar warnings, saying they would minimize their contact with Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto if they win.

Their trials at The Hague could begin within weeks of the election. It would make Kenya the only country in the world, aside from Sudan, with a head of state facing trial for crimes against humanity, and the only one with a president commuting back and forth to a courtroom in The Hague. (Sudan President Omar al-Bashir has refused to accept his indictment by the International Criminal Court.)

The indictments, remarkably, have failed to dent their election chances. Polls show that Mr. Kenyatta is running neck-and-neck with his main rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Both are supported by about 45 per cent of voters.

While many voters don't want an indicted criminal to become Kenya's president, others see Mr. Kenyatta as the target of a Western conspiracy to control the election. "He has played the victim card masterfully and now has a real shot at victory," wrote Kenyan political commentator Murithi Mutiga.

Eight candidates compete in the presidential election, which will be followed by a run off between the two front-runners in April if no candidate wins 50 per cent of the vote. Despite huge efforts to reduce ethnic tensions, including a new constitution, there are persistent fears of post-election violence.

Kenya still has a chance to avoid the worst of the last election, when 600,000 people were forced to flee their homes in months of fighting, triggered by politicians inciting their followers and exploiting traditional tribal divisions. Death squads went on rampages, thousands of people were attacked, hundreds of women were raped, and many houses were burned to the ground. Only 14 people were convicted of crimes related to the violence, and none of the most powerful figures were prosecuted until the International Criminal Court finally stepped in.

This time, the leading candidates have signed pledges of peace, the government is trying to curtail hate speech, and civil society groups are campaigning hard to prevent violence. But there are signs that some people are preparing for battle.

About 200 people have been killed in politically-linked violence in the past several months in the Tana River region, where the election has stoked the traditional ethnic tensions over land and resources. In other parts of the country, hate leaflets have circulated, threatening to expel rival ethnic groups from their land after the election. Illegal weapons, including machetes and guns, have reportedly been assembled by some groups. Many businesses across the country have closed their doors or reduced their stocks for fear of post-election attacks.

"In most areas, the campaigns have gone fully ethnic as politicians and their cronies continue to raise emotions and inflame passions as they campaign for votes in their major strongholds," said a report this week by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

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