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Kenyan presidential candidate Raila Odinga waves to his supporters as he arrives at his final electoral campaign rally at Kasarani stadium in Nairobi, Kenya, on Aug. 6.Brian Inganga /The Associated Press

After a four-decade political saga that included eight years of imprisonment and four failed attempts at the presidency, 77-year-old Raila Odinga seems finally poised to capture the goal of his lifetime: Kenya’s highest elected office.

Mr. Odinga is heading into Tuesday’s election as the favourite to win the Kenyan presidency, maintaining a narrow but clear edge in the latest polls. His main opponent, Deputy President William Ruto, remains within striking range and could still force an unprecedented runoff between the top two candidates if neither can gain 50 per cent of the vote.

In his final campaign rally on the weekend, Mr. Odinga sang the words of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, evoked the image of a Biblical “land of milk and honey” and promised a policy of reconciliation with his rivals. He has pledged to fight poverty by providing a monthly stipend of about US$50 to two million needy families.

More than 50 million people in East African region will face acute food insecurity this year, regional bloc says

Western governments, including Canada’s, have issued a statement saying the election has “huge significance” because Kenya is “an anchor for stability, security and democracy” for Africa and the world. Despite sporadic electoral violence and fraud allegations in the past, Kenya’s democracy is considered one of the strongest in the region.

Mr. Odinga, the son of Kenya’s first vice-president, won praise for his courage when he fought for multiparty democracy during the era of authoritarian ruler Daniel arap Moi. He was arrested and tortured in 1982, spending most of the 1980s in prison.

But while he is known as an opposition leader, Mr. Odinga has been a key member of Kenya’s wealthy power elite for the past two decades, including years as a cabinet minister and prime minister. His latest candidacy was given a big boost when he was endorsed by President Uhuru Kenyatta in a famous handshake in 2018.

While many Kenyans are worried about the danger of postelection violence in the tightly contested vote, similar to the clashes that killed about 1,500 people after the 2007 election, Mr. Odinga has tried to defuse the fears by recalling his handshakes with opponents in the past.

“I will continue this handshake doctrine, the doctrine of unclenching the fist, for the sake of Kenya,” he told his final campaign rally.

He has chosen Martha Karua, a former justice minister, as his running mate. If they win, she will become the first female deputy president in Kenyan history.

A poll last week by the Ipsos research company found that Mr. Odinga was favoured by 47 per cent of respondents, compared with 41 per cent who preferred Mr. Ruto. The pollsters described it as a “comfortable” lead. The poll was based on face-to-face interviews with 6,105 Kenyan adults and had an error margin of 1.25 percentage points.

The other two presidential candidates, George Wajackoyah and David Mwaure, were each supported by less than 3 per cent of respondents, while about 9 per cent were undecided or would not disclose their preference.

While the election campaign has been relatively peaceful, Mr. Ruto has exchanged verbal jabs with his former ally, Mr. Kenyatta, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. The bitter sparring could be an ominous sign for the postelection period. “Should the winner clinch the presidency by only a narrow margin, the declared loser may reject the result,” the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, said in an analysis last week.

“Ideally, the aggrieved loser would turn to the courts, but if instead he calls supporters out into the streets they could clash with police,” it said. “Communal violence might also ensue.”

Kenya is due to hold its general election on Aug. 9 as East Africa's economic hub chooses a successor to President Uhuru Kenyatta.MONICAH MWANGI/Reuters

Postelection violence is seen as less likely after this election because the main candidates have built alliances across ethnic lines. But there is still distrust of Kenya’s election commission, reinforced by a recent mysterious incident in which the police arrested three Venezuelans who flew into Kenya with election material in their personal baggage.

In an election in which the President is strongly supporting Mr. Odinga’s candidacy, Kenyans question whether the election commission will be neutral. “People feel that the executive is meddling in the affairs of running the election,” Kenyatta University public policy professor David Minja told a recent online panel.

Mr. Ruto, 55, has positioned himself as the candidate of the young and the economically marginalized, emphasizing his background as a “hustler” who peddled live chickens on the roadside in his boyhood. He describes his supporters as the “Hustler Nation” – the poor and the unemployed who work odd jobs to survive. But analysts have noted that he has become a wealthy landowner in recent years, from unclear sources.

In 2010, Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto were among six Kenyans charged with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court for their alleged role in instigating violence after the 2007 election. The two men joined forces in the 2013 election, becoming President and Deputy President, and the charges were eventually dropped after the government refused to provide key documents to the international court and several prosecution witnesses were allegedly bribed or intimidated.

Mr. Ruto and Mr. Kenyatta fell out in 2018 when the President threw his support to Mr. Odinga. But analysts have found little substantial policy differences between the front runners. “The two main presidential candidates seem to share lots of similarities when it comes to plans to manage the economy,” London-based Capital Economics said in an election analysis.

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