KENYA–Kenyans trickled into polling stations Thursday for a repeat election that has polarised the nation with some clashes breaking out as supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga ignored his call to stay away and tried to block voting.
In stark contrast to the first ballot in August, which was annulled by the Supreme Court, only a handful of voters could be seen at many polling stations in an election likely to face more legal battles after its conclusion.
In opposition strongholds in the slums of Nairobi and the west of the country, protesters barricaded roads and polling stations, lobbing rocks at police who fired teargas to disperse them.
On a grey and drizzly morning, only 50 people stood on the boggy grass outside the Redeemed Gospel Church polling station in Nairobi’s Mathare slum, where more than 8,000 people are registered to vote.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) greets supporters after voting at a polling station at Mutomo primary school in Kiambu on October 26, 2017 as polls opened for the presidential elections.
“It is my duty to vote. Last time the queue was all around the block and I waited six hours to vote, this time the people are few,” said taxi driver David Njeru, 26, as he waited to cast his ballot.
The election is the chaotic climax of a political drama that began when the Supreme Court overturned the victory of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the August 8 elections.
It cited “irregularities” and mismanagement by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).
Kenyatta, who turns 56 on Thursday, is almost assured victory after veteran opposition leader Odinga withdrew, citing fears the poll would be marred by the same flaws which saw the August vote overturned.
The boycott in east Africa’s richest economy and one of its strongest democracies is likely to tarnish the credibility of Kenyatta’s victory and deepen its worst political crisis since a 2007 election sparked politically driven ethnic violence that left 1,100 dead.
‘A political mistake’
In Odinga’s western stronghold of Kisumu, several polling stations remained closed, with one chained and locked, an AFP correspondent said.
Ballot boxes and electronic kits to identify voters and transmit results had not arrived in polling stations, with some officials facing attacks from opposition supporters while trying to deliver voting material.
“So far, we have not deployed any material, and we have not deployed election officials. The reason is security,” said returning officer John Ngutai.
“We hope to be able to deploy later in the day. We hope for the best but prepare for the worst. The worst would be no election officials.”
Despite the call for a boycott, one Odinga supporter Joshua Nyamori, 42, hoped to vote at the Kenyatta Sports Ground but found no polling material or officials.
“Even if 500,000 do not want to vote, polling stations should be open, even for the 10 people who want to vote,” he said.
“I am concerned because not all people are staying home by choice, some people are afraid of being attacked,” he said.
In his view, the decision of the opposition coalition National Super Alliance (NASA) not to take part in the vote was a “political mistake”.
Isolated incidents in Kisumu, nearby Siaya, Homa Bay and Migori saw protesters block roads and polling stations, clashing with police who tried to disperse them.
With eight candidates in the running, the vote was meant to be a final showdown between Kenyatta and Odinga, whose families have been locked in political rivalry for more than half a century.
However, Odinga urged his supporters to “stay at home” and avoid security forces.
Opposition protests since the August election have resulted in at least 40 deaths, mostly at the hands of police and in poor opposition strongholds, according to rights groups.
The 72-year-old Odinga, who has lost three previous elections claiming fraud in two of them, said his coalition would transform into “a resistance movement”.
NASA will “embark on a national campaign of defiance of illegitimate governmental authority and non-cooperation with all its organs,” he declared.
The decision to cancel the August poll over irregularities in the electronic transmission of votes was initially hailed as an opportunity to deepen democracy in a country plagued by disputed elections.
But the re-run has been dogged by chaos and acrimony, prompting top diplomats to blast Odinga and Kenyatta for fuelling division instead of seeking a path to a free and fair election in the country of 48 million people.
Myriad legal battles failed to block the vote from going forward, with a final petition in front of the Supreme Court failing on the eve of the election as only two out of seven judges showed up.
The European Union observer mission, which like other foreign teams has limited its work due to security fears, said the poll’s credibility had been “undermined” by the inability of the court to reach a quorum.
A statement signed by 15 foreign envoys representing the United States, the United Kingdom and several European countries, expressed disappointment that Kenya had not “come together to hold a better election”.
“We are deeply disappointed by the continuing efforts of both parties to interfere with and undermine the independent operation of the electoral commission, the judiciary, and other essential institutions,” the statement said. The polls will close at 5:00 pm (1400 GMT).