By CARA ANNA
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Polls opened Tuesday in Kenya’s unusual presidential election, where a longtime opposition leader backed by the incumbent faces the vice president who is running as the underdog .
The election is believed to be close and East Africa’s economic hub could see a presidential run-off for the first time. Hundreds of voters lined up hours before polling stations opened in some places.
The top contenders are Raila Odinga, who has been vying for the presidency for a quarter of a century, and Vice President William Ruto, who has highlighted his journey from humble childhood to appeal to millions of struggling Kenyans long accustomed to political dynasties.
“In times like this, it’s when the powerful and the powerful realize that it’s the simple and the ordinary who end up making the choice,” Ruto said smiling to reporters after becoming one of the first voters. “I look forward to our winning day.” He urged Kenyans to be peaceful and respect the choices of others.
More than 22 million people are registered to vote in this election where economic issues could take on more importance than the ethnic tensions that have marked past elections with sometimes deadly results.
Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first president, broke the usual ethnic divides by backing his longtime rival Odinga after their bitter election campaign in 2017. But Odinga and Ruto both chose running mates from the biggest group ethnicity of the country, the Kikuyu.
Odinga made history by choosing her running mate Martha Karua, the first woman to be a top vice-presidential candidate. “Make your voice heard,” she said after voting early in a knitted cap, a sign of unusually cold weather in parts of the country.
Rising food and fuel prices, huge public debt, high unemployment and widespread corruption mean economic problems are at the center of an election in which unregulated campaign spending has highlighted the country’s inequality.
Kenyans hope for a peaceful vote. Elections can be exceptionally troubled, such as in 2007 when the country exploded after Odinga claimed the vote was stolen from him and more than 1,000 people were killed. In 2017, the High Court quashed the election results, a first in Africa, after Odinga challenged them for irregularities. He then boycotted the re-run and declared himself “the people’s president”, making allegations of treason. A handshake between him and Kenyatta calmed the crisis.
This is likely Odinga’s last attempt at 77, and Kenyans and election observers will be watching the reaction of his often passionate supporters to the results and any allegations of rigging.
Official results are due to be announced within a week of the election, but impatience is expected if they don’t arrive before this weekend. The underfunded Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission is under pressure to ensure a peaceful vote.