Kenya votes in close presidential election where turnout could be key

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Kenyans voted Tuesday in an unusual presidential election, where a longtime opposition leader who is backed by the outgoing president faces the brash deputy president who styles himself as an outsider. 

Turnout appeared lower than usual as some voters cited little hope of real change.

Kenya is a standout in east Africa, with its relatively democratic system in a region where some leaders are notorious for clinging to power for decades. 

The top candidates are Raila Odinga, a democracy campaigner who has vied for the presidency for a quarter-century, and 55-year-old Deputy President William Ruto, who has stressed his journey from a humble childhood to appeal to struggling Kenyans long accustomed to political dynasties.

To win outright, a candidate needs more than half of all votes and at least 25% of the votes in more than half of Kenya’s 47 counties. No outright winner means a runoff election within 30 days.

Results must be announced within a week, but impatience is expected if they don’t come before this weekend. “What we want to try to avoid is a long period of anxiety, of suspense,” said Bruce Golding, who leads the Commonwealth election observer group.

Outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, cut across the usual ethnic lines and angered Ruto by backing longtime rival Odinga after their bitter 2017 election contest. 

But both Odinga and Ruto have chosen running mates from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu.

The 77-year-old Odinga made history by choosing running mate Martha Karua, a former justice minister and the first woman to be a leading contender for the deputy presidency. She has inspired many women in a country where female candidates commonly face harassment.

Rising food and fuel prices, debt at 67% of GDP, youth unemployment at 40% and corruption put economic issues at the center of an election in which unregulated campaign spending highlighted the country’s inequality. 

More than 6.5 million people had voted by midday, or about 30% of the 22 million registered voters – but turnout could be lower than five years ago when 80% of voters cast their ballots. 

Kenya’s electoral commission signed up less than half of the new voters it had hoped for, just 2.5 million.

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission said about 200 voting kits had failed out of more than 46,000, calling it “not widespread” and “normal” for technology to break down at times.

Kenyans hope for a peaceful vote, however elections in the east African country can be exceptionally troubled, as in 2007 when there was violence after Odinga claimed the vote had been stolen from him and more than 1,000 people were killed.

Ruto was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for his role in the violence, but his case was terminated amid allegations of witness tampering.

In 2017, the high court overturned the election results, a first in Africa, after Odinga challenged them over irregularities. He boycotted the new vote and proclaimed himself the “people’s president,” bringing allegations of treason. A public handshake between him and Kenyatta calmed the crisis.

This is likely Odinga’s last try. Ruto and Odinga have said they will accept the official results — if the vote is free and fair.