Kenyans Vote Amid Increased Security to Avoid Repeat of Violence

Kenyans begin voting today in a presidential election with security forces on high alert to prevent a repeat of ethnic violence that marred the last ballot and curbed economic growth.

An increase in support for Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, 51, has put him in a dead heat with Premier Raila Odinga, 68, in a race that includes six other challengers, according to a Feb. 22 poll conducted by Ipsos-Synovate Kenya, the Nairobi-based research company. The first round may fail to produce an outright winner, which would mean Kenyatta and Odinga face off in a second round.

Allegations of ballot fixing after the last election in December 2007 sparked two months of clashes between people armed with machetes, spears, and bows and arrows that left about 1,100 dead and more than 350,000 homeless. Economic growth slowed to 1.5 percent in 2008 from 7 percent a year earlier, after farmers fled their fields and tourists stayed away.

“The commission has put in place all the necessary measures to ensure a free, fair and credible election,” Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission Chairman Issack Hassan told reporters yesterday in Nairobi, the capital. More than 99,000 security personnel have been deployed to ensure the vote is peaceful, he said.

Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto, a former Cabinet minister, are facing trial at the International Criminal Court. They, along with two other Kenyan suspects, are accused of crimes against humanity for orchestrating violence after the last ballot. The men, who were rivals in the 2007 vote, deny the allegations.

Foreign Investors

The outcome of the election is being closely watched by foreign investors in a country that serves as the regional hub for companies including Google Inc., International Business Machines Corp., Visa Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp.

Kenya’s NSE All Share index has gained 13 percent this year, adding to a 39 percent rise last year that ranked the gauge as sub-Saharan Africa’s best performer. Foreign investment represented 49 percent of all trading in Kenyan equities last year, compared with 10 percent in 2007, according to the Nairobi Securities Exchange. The shilling posted its biggest weekly advance in 14 months last week, climbing 1.8 percent to 85.88 per dollar on March 1, its strongest level this year.

“Investors seeking growth and profitability are attracted to Kenya since the country and companies in the country are growing at a good pace,” said Mark Mobius, who oversees more than $50 billion as executive chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group. “The election turmoil has not yet impacted the economy and is unlikely to do so unless widespread violence breaks out.”

Third Attempt

Odinga is running for the presidency a third time, after unsuccessful campaigns in 1997 and 2007. His allegation that incumbent Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki stole the 2007 election triggered the violence. Odinga became prime minister as part of power-sharing deal with Kibaki to stop the unrest. Kibaki, 81, is retiring after he served the two-term limit.

The platforms of the top candidates show little difference in policy. Both men have promised to target spending on infrastructure and agricultural development to help boost the economy and create jobs. About 40 percent of Kenyans are unemployed. The rate is worse for youth; 70 percent don’t have work, according to the International Labour Organization.

Still, the $33.6 billion economy is expanding, driven by an emerging middle class and growth in banking and technology. Economic growth may reach as much as 6 percent this year from an estimated 5 percent in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Oil, Gas

The winner will also assume management of possible future oil and gas revenue. The discovery of Kenya’s first crude by Tullow Oil Plc a year ago has accelerated exploration in the region and raises the chance of it becoming an oil producer.

To win the first round, a candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the votes cast and a quarter of support in the majority of Kenya’s 47 counties. Kenyatta polled 45 percent, while Odinga garnered 44 percent support in Ipsos-Synovate’s survey of 5,971 Kenyans between Feb. 15 and Feb. 19. A presidential runoff needs to be conducted 30 days after the first round. Kenyatta and Odinga delivered speeches at rallies on March 2 marking the end of the campaign period, both urging for a high turnout among Kenya’s 14.3 million registered voters.

Kibaki, speaking in a nationally televised address on March 1, reiterated his call for Kenyans to vote peacefully.

Besides Kibaki’s replacement, voters will also choose 290 lawmakers as well as governors, women’s representatives and senators for 47 counties and 1,450 delegates for county assemblies.

History of Violence

Violence has accompanied every election in Kenya since multiparty democracy in 1992, save for one in 2002. The clashes have affected the Rift Valley breadbasket where land disputes have been rife since before Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963. Kenya is the world’s largest black tea exporter and it supplies a third of the flowers sold in Europe.

Kenya has taken steps over the past five years to prevent tensions from escalating at elections, overhauling the judiciary and enacting a constitution in 2010 designed to distribute power and resources more equitably.

The electoral commission has introduced biometric voter registration and will receive results by secure text-messaging from tallying centers. About 22,600 international and domestic observers are expected to monitor the vote. All candidates have agreed to accept defeat if they legitimately lose and use the courts to settle dispute over the results.

“Hopes are high because we’ve seen a lot of changes to mechanisms such as the police and courts since 2007-08, which should help us avoid seeing the same kind of misery we did the last time,” Tom Ocholla, a professor of politics at the University of Nairobi, said by phone.

About 33,000 polling stations will be open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to the commission. Provisional results of the presidential vote are expected to be announced in 48 hours, Hassan said.

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