Kenya’s election commission yesterday cancelled four local polls and announced the arrest of six officials on the eve of a high-stakes presidential vote, raising alarm after a campaign dominated by rigging fears. Millions of Kenyans will vote for a new leader today, in a tight race between Deputy President William Ruto and Raila Odinga, a veteran opposition politician now backed by the ruling party.
Voters will also choose governors, senators, lawmakers, woman representatives and county officials. Despite mudslinging and fake news, campaigning has so far been largely peaceful, a relief in a country where past election-related unrest still casts a shadow.
But Monday’s announcement by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) will do little to ease worries over rigging – presidential poll outcomes have been routinely disputed over the last two decades, and the discord often spills over into violence.
IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati said gubernatorial polls in the counties of Mombasa and Kakamega as well as elections for MP in the Kachiliba and Pokot South constituencies would be postponed until further notice, due to erroneous ballot papers.
The cancellations could affect turnout if citizens decide not to show up at polling stations to cast their ballot for the five other positions still in the running. Together, Mombasa and Kakamega account for some 1.5mn registered voters. Chebukati also said six IEBC officials were arrested for allegedly meeting with candidates with a view to influencing election outcomes.
“The commission... will not hesitate to take stern action against any official found to be in breach of the code of conduct and election offences act,” he said, dismissing rigging fears and urging citizens to vote. “Let us collectively rise up and show the world that Kenya is a vibrant democracy.”
The unsettling developments followed a pledge on Sunday by both the presidential frontrunners to respect the result and not trigger a repeat of the violence that followed polls in 2007 and 2017. “Each Kenyan wherever you are, whatever you do, be a peacemaker. It is a qualification to become a son and a daughter of God,” Ruto said.
The 55-year-old has previously said he will pursue any dispute at the Supreme Court, which in 2017 ordered a rerun of the presidential vote, citing irregularities in the counting process and mismanagement by the electoral commission. Odinga – who is making his fifth run at the presidency – also urged calm, saying: “We want a peaceful country, that no life should be lost at the hands of no other person.”
In an editorial published Monday, the Daily Nation newspaper welcomed the “good signals” from the two men, saying it would “help to ease tension”. In recent days, analysts have suggested that Odinga, 77, will likely scrape past Ruto, with Oxford Economics highlighting the fact that he is backed by “several influential political leaders”, including President Uhuru Kenyatta. “A final poll giving him (Odinga) an 8% lead will encourage undecided swing voters to pick the winning side,” Ben Hunter, Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, said in a note.
Ruto was long expected to succeed Kenyatta, but was sidelined after his boss – who cannot run again – shook hands with longtime foe Odinga in a 2018 pact that stunned the nation. Since then, Ruto, a wealthy businessman with a rags-to-riches background, has vowed to overthrow the “dynasties” running Kenya – a reference to the Kenyatta and Odinga families, which gave the country its first president and vice president.
Ruto has presented himself as “hustler in chief”, claiming to speak for the downtrodden and hoping to strike a chord in a country where three in 10 people live on less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank. In his final campaign speech on Saturday, Odinga vowed to continue with the “handshake doctrine.” “I will shake the hand if I win, and I will shake the hand if I don’t. And I will do it because I love Kenya,” he said. The election is being closely watched by the international community, which views Kenya as a stable partner in a region roiled by conflict. About 22.1mn people – out of a population of around 50mn – are registered to vote, with polling stations open from 6am to 5pm.
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