As daylight began to fade in the East African country of Kenya on Monday, voters at polling stations from Kisumu to Mombasa were still lining up to cast their ballots -- even after the booths were scheduled to close.
“The mood is fairly calm,” Gabrielle Lynch, an associate professor of politics at the University of Warwick in England, said from a polling station in the town of Nakuru. “They closed the line at 5 p.m., but [an hour later] there were maybe 150 people still in the queue.”
Things were very different five years ago. In late 2007 and early 2008, Nakuru was one of the hardest-hit areas in a nationwide eruption of post-election violence. Homes were burned down and stores were vandalized -- still today, some of the damage remains unrepaired. Nationally, at least 1,200 people lost their lives during those tumultuous weeks and hundreds of thousands were displaced.
This year, most Kenyans are keen to prevent another round of deadly clashes.
Some things haven’t changed since the last presidential election, which saw incumbent President Mwai Kibaki retain his post. Tribal loyalties play a huge role in national politics, and suspicions of corruption are still high.
But there have been improvements some since 2008. For instance, a new constitution, which strengthens human rights protections and limits the power of the executive branch, was implemented in 2010. This was also the first presidential election to be preceded by a national televised debate between candidates. Most importantly, Kenyan authorities have redoubled their efforts to ensure the fairness of this vote. If the results can be credibly verified, a backlash will be far less likely.
The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, a domestic watchdog organization, has taken a number of steps to build up public faith in the electoral system. They’ve worked closely with the judiciary to encourage transparency and adherence to the rule of law for all parties involved. They’ve overseen the implementation of biometric voting machines, intended to cut down on the possibility of voter fraud. They’ve also supervised the deployment of tens of thousands of police officers and security officials, who patrolled the streets on Monday in an effort to prevent any violent outbursts.
Monday has gone fairly well for most Kenyan communities, but not all. At least 15 people -- nine security officials and six assailants, according to statements the police made to Reuters -- were killed in two separate attacks on the eastern coast: one in Mombasa, a major port city, and the other in the small town of Kilifi, about 40 miles to the north.
It appears the culprits were working on behalf of the Mombasa Republican Council, or MRC, a militant separatist group based in the area, though this has not been confirmed. The MRC conflict is somewhat separate from the tribal clashes that erupted so tragically across the country five years ago -- many residents of the area surrounding Mombasa seek a separate state due to differences of language, history and religion.
Outside of the Mombasa area, there are still no reports of fatalities resulting from election day violence. But clashes could still occur -- after the 2007 poll, violence reached its peak in the weeks after the results had been announced, not on Election Day itself.
For now, most difficulties have been technical ones. Polling machines in several stations in Nakuru, for instance, either broke down or simply ran out of battery power, forcing staff to switch to manual paper ballots instead, according to Professor Lynch.
“People had a lot of faith in the new technology, so if people think the results end up different from what people expected, the fact that technology didn’t work in some places may become a source of suspicion,” she added.
The counting of ballots has begun in some polling places, and the public reaction to the final results remains to be seen. It may take a while; if no one achieves 50 percent of the vote on Monday, a run-off between the top two contenders will be held on April 11.
Eight candidates are contending, but there are two clear front-runners: Prime Minister Raila Odinga, whose Orange Democratic Movement is part of the Coalition for Reform and Democracy, or CORD; and Uhuru Kenyatta, whose party, The National Alliance, or TNA, which is part of a larger coalition called the Jubilee Alliance. (Uhuru is the son of the legendary Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first president).
Recent polls show the two candidates are running neck-and-neck.
Odinga is of the Luo tribe; his running mate, current Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, is a member of the Kamba community. Together, those ethnic groups comprise about one-quarter of the Kenyan population. Kenyatta is of the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s largest group, which has a long history of wielding political power. His running mate William Ruto is a member of the Kalenjin community. Those groups together make up just over 30 percent of the population.
Most Kenyans will vote according to tribal loyalties rather than political predilections, especially since the candidates are not worlds apart in terms of policy. Both vow to tackle corruption and encourage growth, often in vague terms.
But there is one major difference between the two front-runners that may cause problems in the coming months: Kenyatta has been charged by the International Criminal Court, or ICC ,for his alleged role in inciting violence in 2007 and 2008. So has his running mate Ruto. If these leaders are elected and then convicted, it could damage Kenya’s relationships with members of the international community.
Kenyatta denies his guilt and has said that any decisions about his role in the 2007-08 violence should be left up to the Kenyan judiciary, not an international court. Kenyatta was expected to appear at The Hague in mid-April -- which coincides with the run-off date if that becomes necessary -- but it is increasingly likely that the appointment will be pushed to August.
If Kenyatta is elected, the ICC case will present a whole new political hurdle for Kenya’s 42 million people. But for now, the focus rests on ballot boxes across the country, where registered voters showed considerable determination on Monday. In many cities, people began queuing hours in advance, to say nothing of the crowds that stayed in line for hours after the polls were closed.
The high turnout was an encouraging sign of political engagement, even in the face of potential violence. Ballot counting has now begun under the watchful eyes of domestic and international watchdog organizations, and the Kenyan electorate is bracing itself for an announcement. If all goes well this time around, the results will be accepted gracefully by winners and losers alike.
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