NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenya’s presidential race tightened late Thursday as new results pushed the leading candidate below the crucial 50 per cent mark needed to win outright. A final result was expected Friday, but the close race and a troubled vote count are sparking fears of the kind of violence that ripped through the country after its last national election.
Tensions rose as the political coalition led by Kenya’s prime minister, currently running in second, alleged that some vote results have been doctored and called for a stop to a tallying process it said “lacked integrity.”
The statement by Raila Odinga’s coalition said the counting process should be restarted using primary documents from polling stations, but the election commission insisted there was no way to doctor the results.
Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta had a small lead over Odinga as of late Thursday, though crucially Kenyatta for the first time slipped below the 50 per cent threshold that would give him a clean win.
Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto face charges at the International Criminal Court for their alleged involvement directing postelection violence five years ago. The court announced Thursday that the start of Kenyatta’s trial would be delayed from April until July.
Kenya’s national vote on Monday was the first since the 2007 election sparked tribe-one-tribe attacks that killed more than 1,000 people. Minor protests have cropped up, but no massive rioting or ethnic violence has occurred. As more time passes without a final result, though, tensions are rising, sparking fears that the dam now holding back potential protests could break.
Though Odinga’s party said it continues to urge “calm, tolerance and peace,” its call for a halt to the vote count and allegations of vote rigging could agitate its supporters. Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, Odinga’s running mate, said the announcement “is not a call to mass action.”
Odinga’s supporters in 2007 felt they had been cheated out of an election win over President Mwai Kibaki. Those supporters took to the streets, kicking off two months of clashes that, in addition to the ethnic violence, saw more than 400 deaths caused by police who were fighting protesters. A 2008 government report said the results were so tainted it was impossible to say who actually won.
The winner must capture 50 per cent of the vote from the eight presidential candidates in order to win; otherwise there is a runoff.
Officials on Thursday continued to add up votes from tally sheets that have been transported to the capital, results that are being played across Kenyan TV screens. The partial results as of late Thursday in Kenya showed Kenyatta with about 3.5 million votes; Odinga had about 3.25 million. A little more than half of polling stations had been tabulated.
Musyoka told a news conference that “we have evidence that the results we are receiving have actually been doctored.” He then listed several voting districts where he said the total votes cast exceed the number of registered voters. Musyoka also said that Kenyan law requires that vote results be transmitted electronically from polling stations before transporting the results.
The election commission chairman, Isaak Hassan, said later he has not seen any case where the total valid votes exceeds the number of registered voters.
Musyoka said Odinga’s party was exploring several options to stop the vote count, including getting a court injunction. The electronic tally that was to serve as a preliminary vote count and be available soon after the polls closed failed on Tuesday, leaving the country in a tense information vacuum late Tuesday and Wednesday.
One issue that arose Thursday was why rejected ballots are no longer reflected in the count in high numbers. When the preliminary count froze on Tuesday there were more than 330,000 rejected ballots, an important issue because of a legal fight that will be launched over whether those ballots should be counted in the overall vote total, thus making it harder for a candidate to reach 50 per cent of the votes cast.
Hassan said that the number of rejected ballots was incorrectly increased by a factor of eight because of a computer error.
On Thursday, by contrast, official vote tallies showed a very low number of rejected votes, leading to questions about where they all went. The election commission was to hold a news conference later Thursday but had yet to make any statements as of mid-day.
Kenya is the lynchpin of East Africa’s economy and plays a vital security role in the fight against Somali militants. The U.S. Embassy in Kenya is the largest in Africa, indicating this country’s importance to U.S. foreign policy.
The political battle between the families of Kenyatta and Odinga goes back to the 1960s and to the two candidates’ fathers. Jomo Kenyatta was Kenya’s first president after the end of British colonial rule. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga served as the country’s first vice-president then. The two later had a falling out.
If a runoff is declared for Odinga and Kenyatta, it would be most likely held in late April or early May, depending on how long legal challenges take.
Associated Press reporter Rodney Muhumuza in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.