Voting is underway in Kenya’s presidential election, where an opposition leader backed by the outgoing prime minister is facing off against the self-described “outsider” and “provocateur.”
Elections are seen as close and East Africa’s economic hub could see a presidential runoff for the first time.
Economic issues such as widespread corruption could be more important than the ethnic tensions that have marked past votes with sometimes deadly results.
Kenya stands out for its relatively democratic system in a region where some leaders are known to have held on to power for decades.
Its stability is crucial to foreign investors, the humblest of street vendors and troubled neighbors like Ethiopia and Somalia.
Hundreds of voters lined up hours before the polls opened in some places, often after being summoned by volunteers’ whistles in the early hours of the morning.
Voting started late in some areas as polling materials or workers were delayed.
The leading candidates are Raila Odinga, a champion of democracy who has competed for the presidency for a quarter of a century, and Deputy President William Ruto, 55, who has highlighted his journey from a humble childhood to attract millions long-accustomed struggling Kenyans. political dynasties.
“It is at times like this that the powerful and the powerful realize that it is the simple and the ordinary who ultimately decide,” Ruto told reporters after becoming one of the first voters. “I look forward to our victorious day.”
He urged Kenyans to be peaceful and respect each other’s choices.
“I am confident that the people of Kenya will speak loudly in favor of democratic change,” Odinga told reporters heading to the polls.
Outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, cut across the usual ethnic lines and angered Mr Ruto by backing Mr Odinga after their bitter 2017 election contest.
But both Mr Odinga and Mr Ruto have chosen running mates from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu.
Odinga, 77, has made history by choosing his running mate Martha Karua, a former justice minister and the first woman to be a leading vice-presidential candidate.
“Make your voice heard,” she said after voting early wearing a knit cap, a sign of the unseasonably cold weather in some parts of the country.
Rising food and fuel prices, huge public debt, high unemployment and corruption put economic problems at the center of an election in which unregulated campaign spending highlighted inequality of the country.
“We need mature people to lead, not someone who abuses people. Someone who respects the elderly,” said Rosemary Mulima, the 55-year-old teacher, who arrived with friends at a polling station on the outskirts of Nairobi to find about 500 people in line before dawn.
He said he had “very high” hopes for Mr Odinga in his fifth attempt.
Others predicted a lower turnout than the 80 percent of five years ago and blamed voter apathy. The electoral commission registered less than half of the new voters it expected: only 2.5 million.
“The problems of 2017, the economy, the day-to-day, are still here,” said shopkeeper Adrian Kibera, 38, who was not sure he would bother to vote. “We don’t have good options,” he said, saying Mr Odinga was too old and Mr Ruto too inexperienced.
Kenyans expect a peaceful vote.
Elections can have exceptional problems, such as in 2007, when the country erupted after Odinga claimed his vote had been stolen and more than 1,000 people died.
Ruto was charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity for his role in the violence, but his case was closed amid allegations of witness tampering.
In 2017, the high court overturned the election results, a first in Africa, after Odinga challenged them for irregularities. He then boycotted the new vote and proclaimed himself “people’s president” with accusations of treason. A handshake between him and Kenyatta eventually calmed the crisis.
More than 22 million people are registered to vote. Official results are due in a week, but expect impatience if they don’t arrive before this weekend. The underfunded Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission is under pressure to ensure a smooth vote.
To win outright, a candidate needs more than half of all votes and at least 25% of the vote in more than half of Kenya’s 47 counties. No outright winner means a runoff election within 30 days.