Friday, March 01, 2013
Kenyans head to the polls on Monday to elect a
new president for the first time since deadly post-election unrest
rocked the nation five years ago, with observers warning of possible
fresh violence in the tight race.
A boy enters an house with various campaign posters at the Kangemi slum in Kenya's capital Nairobi.
Leading candidates have publically
pledged there will be no repeat of the bloodshed that followed the
disputed 2007 polls in which over 1,100 people were killed and some
600,000 fled their homes, but tensions are running high nonetheless.
Campaigning has been intense with
opinion polls placing presidential hopeful Prime Minister Raila Odinga
neck-and-neck with Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta - who along
with his running mate faces trial at the International Criminal Court
(ICC) for their alleged roles in orchestrating murder, rape and violence
after the last election.
Watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch have warned that the risk of renewed political violence is “perilously high”.
At least 484 people in the country
were killed and over 116,000 fled their homes due to ethnic violence
last year, according to the United Nations.
of the most complex polls Kenya has ever held, voters will cast six
ballots for the president, parliament, governors, senators and
That means potential for tensions on a local and national level.
The vote also raises the prospect
that Kenya - a popular tourist destination with a growing economy buoyed
by foreign investment Ä could follow the path of pariah state Sudan,
the only other country to elect a president indicted by the ICC.
Kenya, a traditional ally of
Western nations, is also viewed as a strategic nation in terms of
counter-terrorism, with Kenyan troops battling Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists
But the 2007-2008 violence exposed
widespread disenchantment with the political class, deep tribal
divisions and shattered Kenya's image as a beacon of regional stability.
Observers expect some violence in
the upcoming polls - all of Kenya's elections have seen some conflict
and election-related attacks have already taken place - although foreign
diplomats say they are cautiously optimistic.
looming ICC trials, where two top candidates face trial, have greatly
raised the stakes of winning or losing the national vote.
Richard Dowden, director of
Britain's Royal African Society, has called the ICC an “exceedingly
dangerous factor supercharging this election”.
“Those indicted may feel they have
nothing to lose and their best bet is to get elected by any stratagem
available” in the hope of defying the court once in office, Dowden wrote
in a recent article.
Some Kenyans in flashpoint areas
have packed up ahead of the polls, especially in areas that saw violence
last time, or where a Kenyan belongs to a minority ethnic group in that
“I want to ensure my safety,” said
Kepha Ongicho, who works in a general store near the Rift Valley town
of Naivasha, the base of multiple international flower farms. “I cannot
take the risk of staying because I don't know what will happen.”
But more checks are in place this
time, including better systems to limit vote rigging, greater public
awareness of the bloody cost of violence, and a new constitution
devolving powers to make the presidential poll less of a
general election could be relatively free and fair, and violence is not
inevitable,” said Gabrielle Lynch, a politics professor at Britain's
Warwick University. “However, it is dangerous to be complacent.”
With President Mwai Kibaki
stepping down after completing two terms in power, eight candidates are
in the running for the top job to lead the 41 million people in East
Africa's economic powerhouse.
While Kenyatta and Odinga are the
frontrunners, few apart from their core supporters believe they can win
the necessary absolute majority outright, setting up a probable second
round run-off likely sometime in April.
Kenyatta and fellow ICC-charged
running mate William Ruto however will be likely spared the potential
diary clash between a second round and their trial - due to start April
10 - after ICC prosecutors suggested a possible delay until August.
Nevertheless, should Kenyatta win,
the country could face the absence of its president and vice-president
for several months, if not years, in The Hague.
Ruto, who like Kenyatta professes
his innocence, has told voters they can govern Kenya from abroad since
“even as I attend to other issues... we can chew gum and still scale the
stairs at the same time.”
Odinga, however, has scoffed at the suggestion of trying “to run a government by Skype”.
Diplomats say that potential legal
restrictions only come into play should Kenyatta and Ruto end their
cooperation with the court.
But even if a victorious Kenyatta
cooperates with the ICC as promised, it would be “difficult for many
countries to have normal diplomatic relations” while donors might reduce
bilateral assistance, the International Crisis Group has warned.
However, the same issues remain
even if Odinga wins, should he then decide for political expediency -
for instance not wanting to rile the supporters of a defeated Kenyatta Ä
to allow the ICC indictees to avoid trial.