Flanked by cheering crowds, the frontrunners in Kenya’s presidential election tried to cast their final vote on Saturday under tight security, capping months of frenetic campaigning ahead of the August 9 polls.
Vice President William Ruto and Raila Odinga, a veteran opposition leader now backed by the ruling party, are fighting for the chance to lead the East African powerhouse as it grapples with a cost of living crisis.
Past polls have been marred by violence and continue to cast a dark shadow over the country, where 22.1 million voters will now elect the next president, as well as senators, governors, legislators, female representatives and some 1,500 provincial officials.
The battle for the votes has been dominated by mud-slinging, tit-for-tat claims of rigging and a free bonus for supporters, who are showered with umbrellas, groceries and money for attending rallies.
After traversing the vast country in recent months, the two candidates staged their final offensive in the capital Nairobi, with Ruto holding a demonstration at the 30,000-seat Nyayo National Stadium and Odinga campaigning at the 60,000-seat Kasarani Stadium. seats. Lawyers David Mwaure and George Wajackoyah – an eccentric former spy who wants to legalize marijuana – are also in the fray.
The bitterly-fought race has sparked speculation that Kenya could see its first presidential election, with many fearing a challenge to the outcome could lead to mob violence.
A wealthy businessman with a rags-to-riches background and a shady reputation, Ruto, 55, was long expected to become President Uhuru Kenyatta’s successor but lost ground when his boss – who can no longer run – joined forces with old rival Odinga in 2018.
Kenyatta’s endorsement has given Odinga, 77, access to the ruling Jubilee party’s powerful electoral machine, but has also dealt a blow to the former political prisoner’s anti-establishment credentials.
Nevertheless, some analysts believe that Odinga will emerge victorious in an exciting race, with Oxford Economics stressing that he has the support of “several influential political leaders”, including Kenyatta.
Ruto has set himself up as a “chieftain” targeting the “dynasties” that run Kenya – a reference to the Kenyatta and Odinga families, who gave the country its first president and vice president.
He has pledged to create a bottom-up economy in a country where three in ten people live on less than $1.90 a day, the World Bank said.
Odinga, meanwhile, has made the fight against corruption an important part of his campaign, pointing out that Ruto’s running mate is fighting a corruption case.
Evance Odawo, a 23-year-old tailor who attended Odinga’s meeting, told TUSEN: “We expect the economy to improve and the standard of living from the next president.”
“There is no work. We have no job. We are the scammers,” said Grace Kawira, an unemployed mother of two, who was waiting for Ruto to arrive. “We are just surviving,” she told TUSEN, echoing concerns shared by many in Kenya.
The elections will open a new chapter in Kenya’s history, with neither candidate belonging to the dominant Kikuyu tribe, which has produced three of the country’s four presidents.
Both men have tried to appeal to the Kikuyu, which accounts for about six million votes, but analysts say the economic crisis is likely to compete with tribal loyalties as a key factor determining voter behaviour.
With large ethnic voting blocs, Kenya has long suffered from politically motivated municipal violence around election time, most notably after a controversial poll in 2007 that left more than 1,100 people dead, leaving scars on the country’s psyche.
The run-up to this year’s poll has been largely peaceful with police planning to deploy 150,000 officers on election day to ensure security and the international community is calling for a peaceful vote.
Since 2002, every Kenyan presidential poll has been followed by a dispute over the results. The Supreme Court annulled the 2017 election over widespread irregularities in the counting process and mismanagement by TUSEN Electoral and Boundaries Commission.
Pressured to ensure a free and fair poll, the IEBC insists it has taken all necessary precautions to prevent fraud, with TUSEN hoping for a peaceful vote.
“I want (the politicians) to accept the elections so that the country can move forward in peace,” said 32-year-old Kawira.