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A Kenyan man reads a newspaper a day after the country's presidential election, at a roadside stall in Nairobi, March 5, 2013. (Sayyid Azim/AP)
A Kenyan man reads a newspaper a day after the country's presidential election, at a roadside stall in Nairobi, March 5, 2013. (Sayyid Azim/AP)


In a close Kenyan race, danger pulls ahead Add to ...

Monday’s general election in Kenya was always going to be complex.

The first vote since the proclamation of a new constitution in August of 2010, Kenyans went to the polls to choose a new president, members of the legislative assembly and 47 county governors and county councillors. The hope was that the election could be conducted without the violence that marred the last one, in December of 2007, when disputed results sparked long-standing tensions among tribes and led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people.

The results announced late Thursday gave the lead to Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and his Kikuyu-dominated coalition but pushed him below the 50-per-cent threshold he would need to avoid a runoff in April or May. A close race and a troubled vote count can’t help but spark fears of post-election violence.

The other main contender, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, is already alleging vote-rigging. There’s also the issue of a large number of spoiled ballots – this needs to be explained, either by the electoral commission or, ultimately, by the courts.

Kenya is by no means out of the woods yet, but none of this was to be unexpected: In either case, the loser would cry foul. One of the realities of Kenyan politics, and life, is that too much remains divided along tribal lines. The Kikuyu (party of the father of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, the father of Uhuru) consider themselves the natural governing people of Kenya. The Prime Minister’s tribe, the Luo, is half the size of the Kikuyu and can gain electoral success only by forming coalitions with other, smaller tribes. While many Western supporters of Kenya have been arguing for a “one Kenya” approach leading up to this election, it’s hard to break traditional tribal and familty loyalties in what remains a largely rural nation.

The other elephant in the room is that both Uhuru Kenyatta and his vice-presidential running mate, William Ruto, have been indicted by the International Criminal Court for offences that occurred in the violence that followed the 2007 vote. It’s entirely possible that these two men facing serious criminal charges could be the new president and vice-president of Kenya.

Given this possibility, both the United States and the European Union have suggested that Kenya will face “consequences” if Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto are elected. And if they are, it will certainly make governance in Kenya difficult at a time when there will be appeals to the courts regarding the electoral outcome. An extended period of uncertainty will cripple investment and cast a pall over what are now being seen as sunnier times for Africa in general and Kenya in particular.

If the result is close, Mr. Odinga, the Prime Minister, and his supporters will claim that the election was stolen from them. This will increase agitation up to the runoff and intensify lobbying to gain the votes of the third contender, Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi. This will not augur well for a peaceful conclusion to the electoral process in Kenya.

David Collins is a former Canadian high commissioner to Kenya.

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