NAIROBI – Polls opened Tuesday in an unusual presidential election in Kenya, where a longtime opposition leader who is backed by the outgoing president faces a deputy president who styles himself as an outsider.
Hundreds of voters lined up hours ahead of polls opening in some locations.
East Africa’s economic hub could see a presidential run-off for the first time ever as the election is expected to be a close one.
Raila Odinga, who has vied for the presidency for a quarter-century, is facing off against Deputy President William Ruto, who has played up his journey from a humble childhood to appeal to millions of struggling Kenyans long accustomed to political dynasties.
More than 22 million people are registered to vote in this election in which economic issues could be of greater importance than the ethnic tensions that have marked past votes, with sometimes deadly results.
Outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, cut across the usual ethnic lines 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.
Odinga has made history by choosing running mate Martha Karua, the first woman to be a leading contender for the deputy presidency.
Rising food and fuel prices, huge government debt, high unemployment and widespread corruption mean economic issues are at the centre of an election in which unregulated campaign spending has already highlighted inequality.
History of election challenges
Kenyans are hoping for a peaceful vote this time around. Past elections have been fraught – in 2007, the country erupted in unrest after Odinga claimed the vote had been stolen from him, leaving more than 1,000 people dead in post-election violence. In 2017, the high court overturned the election results, a first in Africa, after Odinga challenged them over irregularities. He then boycotted the new vote and proclaimed himself the “people’s president”, bringing allegations of treason. A handshake between him and Kenyatta eventually calmed the crisis.
This is likely Odinga’s last try at age 77, and Kenyans and election observers will be watching to see how his often passionate supporters react to the results and any allegations of vote-rigging.
The underfunded Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission is under pressure to ensure a trouble-free vote. Official results must be announced within a week of the election.