Kenyans start to count votes as parties 'satisfied' with polls
By Katharine Houreld
NAIROBI - Kenyan election officials began counting votes on Tuesday, as results trickled in from a hard-fought contest between the country's foremost political dynasties and election authorities called for calm.
Shrouded in fears of violence, the vote pits President Uhuru Kenyatta, a wealthy 55-year-old businessman and the son of Kenya's founding president, against Raila Odinga, 72, a former political prisoner and son of Kenya's first vice-president.
The rivals are facing each other for the second time; opinion polls put them neck-and-neck. Campaigning was marked by fiery rhetoric but public speeches were largely free of the ethnic hate that has sullied previous contests.
"During this critical phase, we urge all Kenyans to exercise restraint as we await official results from the polling stations and indeed as they start trickling in," the electoral commission said in a statement.
Odinga comes from the Luo people in western Kenya, an area that has long felt neglected by the government and resentful of their perceived exclusion from political power. Kenyatta is Kikuyu, an ethnic group that has supplied three of Kenya's four presidents since independence from Britain in 1963.
The razor-thin polling has increased the chances of glitches - innocent or otherwise - despite a high-tech electronic voting system. That could be grounds for the loser to allege fraud, as Odinga did in 2007 and in 2013. Given his age, this is probably Odinga's last crack at the top job.
A decade ago, vote tallying was abruptly stopped and the incumbent president declared the winner, triggering an outcry from Odinga's camp. The ethnic violence that followed killed 1,200 people and displaced 600,000.
International Criminal Court cases against Kenyatta and his now-deputy, William Ruto, for helping direct that violence collapsed as witnesses died or disappeared.
During the 2013 polls, Odinga again alleged fraud, but quelled unrest by taking his complaints to the court.
This time, the government deployed more than 150,000 security personnel, including wildlife rangers, to protect 41,000 polling stations.
Voting was mostly smooth and turnout was high, the election commission said, despite some isolated incidents and delays. The police said there were no major problems.
"WILL OF THE PEOPLE"
In addition to a new president, Kenyans are electing lawmakers and local representatives, the result of a 2010 constitution that devolved power and money to the counties, reducing the "winner takes all" nature of the presidential race that helped unleash previous ethnic violence.
As he voted, Kenyatta said he would be willing to step down if he lost and called on Odinga to do the same.
"In the event that they lose, let us accept the will of the people. I am willing myself to accept the will of the people, so let them too," he said as he voted at the Mutomo Primary School in Gatundu, some 30 km (20 miles) north of the capital.
Hundreds of people had waited in line since 2 a.m., wrapped in jackets and blankets against the cold and drizzle.
The winner needs one vote more than 50 percent, and to win at least a quarter of the vote in 24 of Kenya's 47 counties.
First results began to come in on Tuesday night, with election officials in lime green vests counting votes in the warm glow of gas lamps.
But a very close race means it might take three days before a winner emerges. Officially, election authorities have up to a week to declare the outcome.
"Everyone is coming out early and in big numbers because we need change so badly," said Anne-Marie Omondi, a 28-year-old Odinga supporter in Kisumu, an Odinga stronghold in western Kenya swept up in the 2007 unrest.
Odinga voted in Kibera, the country's biggest slum, but left without speaking to supporters. Later, his key ally Musalia Mudavadi said the opposition alliance was largely satisfied with the vote so far.
"We commend (election officials) for the good job so far ... we also wish to commend security agencies for the professionalism displayed so far," he said in a news conference about an hour before polls were due to close at 1400 GMT.
There were still some problems with the vote, he said: delays, some agents being denied entry to polling stations, names missing from the register, and the failure of some electronic voter identification devices.
The ruling Jubilee party also raised some problems but said it was largely satisfied.
With many people still waiting, some centers remained open beyond the official end of voting to ensure people in the queue could cast their ballots.
The election head in coastal Lamu county said security fears and a lack of helicopters delayed voting by many hours in some polling stations. Elsewhere, heavy rain impeded the delivery of voting materials.
The opposition has already repeatedly accused the government of trying to rig the polls.
The torture and murder last week of a top election official and the deportation of two foreign Odinga advisers have fueled wild online conspiracy theories and "fake news" items consumed voraciously by Kenya's tech-savvy population.
At two polling stations in Kisumu, a few complained about their names not being in the electronic voter register system introduced this year to combat fraud.
"What am I supposed to do?" said Catherine Okello, frustrated by a hotline text message telling her to go to the nearest election commission office to sort out the problem. "Everyone from the commission is at the polling station."
Despite the fears of unrest, Kenya's shilling has held steady around 103 to the dollar. There is little to separate the two candidates in terms of economic policy although the U.S.-educated Kenyatta is seen as more pro-business.
Kenyatta's strongholds are in central Kenya and the Rift Valley. Urban centers are up for grabs, although Odinga currently controls Kenya's three big cities.
Thousands of people returned to their ethnic heartlands ahead of the vote, fearful of a repeat of 2007's violence.
There are more than 6,000 domestic observers, and party agents at each tallying station have to sign off on results that are then sent electronically to a national collation center in the capital, Nairobi.