Kenyans and international observers hope that a breakout of violence like the one that shook the country in 2007 will be avoided this time. But the situation is universally described as very tense.
Almost 20 million Kenyans go to the polls on Tuesday, August 8, to elect a new president, vice-president, the National Assembly, governors, county assemblies and the Senate.
Observers saw the presidential campaigns led by 55-year-old incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and his main rival, opposition leader, Raila Odinga, as having been relatively calm, although some violence was registered. Reverend Jepthath Gathaka of the civil society organization Elections Observation Group (ELOG) told DW: "Over the last four months we have seen sporadic acts of violence in different parts of the country, ending in the loss of lives of aspirants and supporters."
Tensions reached a new high last week, after the unsolved murder of Christopher Chege Musando, a senior manager of information technology for the National Election Commission. Odinga's camp seized upon the occurrence to renew accusations that the government was setting up the stage for electoral fraud. In an exclusive interview with DW Raila Odinga said the murder had given rise to "doubts and misgivings" about the proper functioning of the electronic voting system. Kenyatta has counter-accused his rival of trying to prepare public opinion for an anticipated rejection of the outcome. Analysts say this kind of mutual recriminations could spark violence, the way they did in 2007.
Fearing violence, people have been leaving Nairobi in droves. DW correspondent Sella Oneko describes an almost empty capital: "There is virtually no traffic in Nairobi. Many businesses are closed today." Although some people are going to their rural homes because this is where they registered to vote, they are also returning to places which are perhaps less ethnically diverse and the potential for ethnic violence is lower, according to Oneko.
The international community is also worried about the situation in Kenya. Some organizations have advised their staff to leave. "Elections in a democracy should never be a matter of life and death. It's very important that people can cast their votes safely," said European Union's Chief Observer Marietje Schaake.
Over 1,100 people died in the aftermath of elections in 2007, and 600,000 were displaced, when the opposition, then also led by Raila Odinga, refused to accept the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki, alleging electoral fraud. The events destroyed Kenya's reputation as a stable country.
A matter of ethnicity
In 2013, 72-year-old Raila Odinga lost again, this time to Uhuru Kenyatta. To the relief of Kenyans, that election came and went without violence, fueling hopes of a peaceful election in 2017. But in a new edition of the Odinga-Kenyatta duel this year, insults flew in highly acrimonious campaigns on both sides. Kenyatta declined to take part in a televised debate with all presidential candidates. The other six contenders do not stand a chance to win, as they make up for less than one percent of voting intentions, according to recent polls.
During the campaign, the main contenders made little effort to present political and government programs. Important issues like the economy, unemployment, corruption, and even Kenya's engagement in Somalia against the Al-Shabab terror militia, do not seem to weigh as much with voters as do matters of ethnicity. Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and Odinga, a Luo, represent the biggest ethnic groups of the country. Observers predict a cliffhanger election with the spoils going to the camp most able to mobilize its supporters. This polarization is feeding the tension and fears of renewed violence.
Raila Odinga, who leads the opposition's National Super Alliance (NASA), believes the country's division to be the fault of President Kenyatta and his Jubilee Coalition. "Basically they have been looking out for their friends. So it is not even the communities that are benefitting. That has polarized the country, because other people feel completely excluded from the governance structure," Odinga told DW, promising that the fight against corruption would be a priority of a NASA government. As will be uniting the country, he added.
For their part, Kenyans are rooting for a peaceful election: "They basically hope that everything will pass quickly, so that things go back to normal. Many people are very disillusioned and feel that elections and politicians haven't and won't improve things," said DW correspondent Sella Oneko.