Nairobi, Kenya | AFP | Polling centres closed and vote counting started an hour after Kenyans flocked to vote Tuesday in elections headlined by a knife-edge battle between incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and his rival Raila Odinga.
From first-time voters to those bent with age, from urbanites to ethnic Samburu warriors draped in colourful beads and carrying spears, thousands descended upon polling stations long before dawn to cast their ballots.
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“I really hope for a change of leadership, I really hope for a change in the way we do politics. I want corruption out of the country”, said Mary Wangu, 42, at a Nairobi polling station.
However after over six hours of queuing she said she was “fed up” at the slow voting process.
Electoral commission (IEBC) chief Wafula Chebukati said “voting was going smoothly” despite minor delays, technical hiccups and heavy rain slowing the process at some of the 41,000 polling stations.
All eyes are on the biometric voter identification and tallying system which suffered severe glitches in 2013 polls. The system is seen as crucial to a smooth election amid opposition accusations of a plot to rig the vote.
– No strangers to violent polls –
Kenyans are no strangers to violent polls, and tensions have soared over fraud claims and the murder of an official in charge of the electronic voting system in the final days of campaigning.
Tuesday’s elections are taking place a decade after a shambolic 2007 vote — which foreign observers agreed was riddled with irregularities — sparked violence which left more than 1,100 people dead and 600,000 displaced.
The IEBC moved quickly to deal with complaints Tuesday, removing clerks in a polling station where ballot papers were pre-marked as “rejected”.
In the port city of Mombasa a clerk was arrested for issuing double ballot papers to certan voters, local police said.
“I voted Raila, because he will be so much better to us. But if he does not win, it’s ok. It’s a democracy after all. Really, there’s no need for violence,” said Tom Mboya, 43, who works in construction and voted in the capital’s largest slum Kibera.
– ‘Will of the people’ –
The election is set to be the final showdown of a dynastic rivalry that has lasted more than half a century since the presidential candidates’ fathers Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Odinga went from allies in the struggle for independence to bitter rivals.
The men belong to two of Kenya’s main ethnic groups, Kenyatta from the Kikuyu, the largest, and Odinga from the Luo.
Both have secured formidable alliances with other influential communities in a country where voting takes place largely along tribal lines.
Odinga, 72, the flagbearer for the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition, is taking his fourth and likely final stab at the presidency. He claims elections in 2007 and 2013 were stolen from him.
“In the unlikely event that I lose I don’t need a speech, I will just speak from my heart,” Odinga said shortly before voting.
Both he and Kenyatta cast their votes shortly before midday.
“To my competitors, in the event that they lose they should be able to accept the will of the people. I also want to say that if I lose, I will accept the will of the people,” said Kenyatta.
– Development, corruption –
Kenyatta, 55, is seeking re-election after a first term in which he oversaw a massive infrastructure drive and steady economic growth of more than five percent.
“Kenyatta has done a tremendous job, he has improved communications, built roads and other infrastructure, he has to keep the job,” said Sashikat Bhaga, 68, in the Nairobi suburb of Parklands, home to many Kenyans of Indian or Pakistani origin.
However Kenyatta is criticised for soaring food prices — with prices jumping 20 percent year-on-year in May — and massive corruption scandals on his watch.
The devolution of power to Kenya’s 47 counties after a post-conflict constitutional reform means elections are now a complex affair, with citizens casting six different ballots.
More than 150,000 members of the security forces have been deployed for polling day.
The international community is also keeping close tabs on the election in a country considered a bastion of stability in east Africa and a key partner in the fight against the Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab.
Hundreds of foreign observers, including former US secretary of state John Kerry and former South African president Thabo Mbeki, as well as delegations from the European Union, are overseeing the election.
There are more than 19 million registered voters in the nation of 48 million. Half are aged under 35.
Counting will begin immediately after voting ends at 5 pm (1400 GMT). Polling stations where voting got under way late will remain open for longer, the IEBC said.
First results are expected around Wednesday. Officials have a week to release final results. A