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Day of destiny

Maja Braun / sh
February 28, 2013

Memories of the violence that wracked Kenya after the last elections five years ago are very much alive. Nonetheless there are hopes Monday's poll will boost Kenyan democracy.

Crowds greet Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga as he arrives for a rally Photo: Will Boase/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Will Boase/AFP/Getty Images

Kenyans have not just one vote but six when they go to the polls on Monday, March 4, 2013.

They can use them to decide the composition of several new institutions designed to make the country's political system fairer and more democratic. One innovation is that every county will now have an elected women's representative in parliament. The new administrations in the 47 counties will each have a governor and local representatives so that more decisions can be taken at local level. Kenyans will also vote for the members of a new senate intended to ensure more attention is paid to regional considerations in the capital, Nairobi.

"We are hopeful that the elections will bring about great change, " said Nyaigoti Chacha, a political scientist in Nairobi.  The existence of two parliamentary chambers plus a decentralised government should bring about a separation of powers and a healthy system of checks and balances, he feels.

EU election observers Phtoto: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
Election observers from the EU are among those monitoring preparations for the pollImage: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

"We are expecting the counties to exert far greater pressure on parliamentarians in future," Chacha told DW.

Neck-and-neck race for the presidency

The influence of the new president will also be smaller than before. Two candidates now lead the race. Opinion polls say the other six contenders are trailing far behind.  Raila Odinga has a slight lead in the polls, as he did five years ago when he ran against incumbent president Mwai Kibaki. After two months of bloody clashes between the supporters of both camps, Odinga and Kibaki agreed on a unity government with Odinga as prime minister.

This time round Odinga's main challenger is again a Kikuyu, like outgoing President Kibaki.  He's Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's founder Jomo Kenyatta.  He's been making headlines largely because of the charges he faces at the International Criminal court (ICC) in The Hague. He's accused of masterminding and financing acts of revenge against the Luo and Kalenjin ethnic groups after the last elections. In the run-up to this poll, Kenyatta joined forces with former rival William Ruto, a Kalenjin.

Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta speaks with his running mate William Ruto Photo: SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images)
Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are now alliesImage: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

Ruto also faces charges in The Hague. The duo have made use of the impending trials, which are due to start after the elections, to launch a joint tirade against the ICC which they say is influenced by western nations. If they should win the elections, many fear negative consequences for Kenya's economy and the country's international political standing.

Fears that history will repeat itself

The alliance between the political leaders of the country's two largest ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, is seen by many observers as a positive sign that the elections will go off peacefully. This is, however, contradicted by the ethnic clashes witnessed in past months which claimed almost 500 lives.

Kenya's police are unable to cope and are sometimes targets of violent attacks themselves. The security forces are still chronically understaffed - as they were at the time of the last elections. Police officer Christine Furaha says they were the worst days of her time with the police. "We had to collect the corpses, young and old, women, men, even children. It was appalling." Furaha was stationed in Eldoret in western Kenya. "With just 40 officers we had no chance to stop people," she said.

Praise for preparations

Hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. That seems to be the attitude of many Kenyans who have left their homes for the time of the elections, preferring to be where their respective ethnic groups are in the majority. Foreign investors are holding back until the new government is securely in place. Aid organisations throughout the country are standing by to provide swift aid to refugees.

The national electoral commission is taking steps to ensure the elections are as transparent as possible, to avoid any accusations of vote-rigging that could unleash violence.  Voters' biometric details, such as finger prints, have been recorded to rule out multiple voting. Despite numerous setbacks and a far lower number of people reguistering to vote than had been expected - 14.3 million out of a population of 40 million - the electoral commission has the backing of international election observers. The former president of Mozambique, Joachim Chissano, heads the African Union observer team and had words of praise for the preparations in Kenya. 

Sole female candidate Martha Karua EPA/JOAN PERERUAN / NATION MEDIA GROUP
Sole female candidate Martha Karua is trailing far behind in opinion pollsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"We had the feeling we were being informed by highly professional people who were very well prepared. And that makes us confident that these elections will go off very well."

For an election with six votes per person, the technical demands are high, especially in a country that frequently experiences power outages. The next president will in all likelihood be decided in a run-off. Hardly anyone expects either of the two front runners to win an absolute majority in the first round.