Wary but optimistic Kenyans vote for president

Officials collect tallying forms on the eve of the Kenyan presidential, gubernatorial and senatorial elections.

Story highlights

  • Kenyan polls show the two frontrunners tied in a dead heat
  • A candidate must win at least 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff
  • The election includes sons of the nation's first president and vice president
  • Kenya has reformed its constitution and election rules since unrest in 2007

Hours before sunrise Monday, throngs of Kenyans lined up nationwide to choose a president in a bare-knuckle, anxiously awaited general election in East Africa's largest economy.

Some voters spent the night sprawled on the ground at polling stations, donning heavy jackets in the chilly predawn hours.

The stakes are high -- it is the first poll since the nation plunged into ethnic violence after disputed results in the last election.

"We are excited; this has been a long time coming," said Mark Kamau, who lives in the capital of Nairobi. "We are ready to show the world that this is not the Kenya they saw in 2007."

After the disastrous vote, the government boosted security and set up an ambitious new constitution, making it one of the nation's most complicated polls since it gained independence from Britain in 1963.

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Complicated history

Eight contenders are vying for the presidency, including frontrunners Raila Odinga, who is the current prime minister, and his deputy, Uhuru Kenyatta.

Recent polls show the two in a tight race, prompting analysts to raise the possibility of a second round of voting next month.

Kenya's constitution calls for a runoff within a month of the results if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote.

Reforms, changes

After the last election, the nation revamped various political systems, including the constitution, the electoral process and the judicial system. It said the new system will empower citizens and local governments, ensuring a peaceful election.

"It is one thing to change the constitution, but we have to change our underlying issues of ethnic sentiments that have dated years," Kamau said.

During the last election, Odinga disputed results mandating the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki as the winner, alleging the outcome was rigged.

Supporters loyal to both leaders took to the streets in protest, pitting ethnic groups loyal to both against one another.

More than 1,200 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced -- the worst violence since the nation gained independence.

Optimistic, but prepared

Leading up to this election, Kenyans have pledged peace, with candidates declaring they will settle any election disputes in court.

Candidates have implored their supporters to avoid bloodshed no matter the vote's outcome.

But despite a wave of optimism, some citizens remain wary.

"I don't know what possessed people last time," Kamau said of the violence. "I hope there will be no violence. I'm waiting for Kenya to restore my faith this time."

But as he waits, he is prepared. His refrigerator is stocked and his car is filled with fuel.

"Just in case," he said. "You never know."

'My main issue'

The economy, security, and the fight against corruption, which is rampant in the country, are among voters' top concerns in the election.

The election also has a unique challenge. Kenyatta has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for allegedly inciting a local militia to conduct reprisal attacks in the last election. He has denied the charges.

His running mate, William Ruto, also faces ICC charges.

Despite the indictment, Kenyatta enjoys massive popularity. But some voters are afraid the international community will isolate the nation if a candidate facing ICC charges is elected.

Dominic Muia, 35, was in line at 5 a.m. to cast his ballot in the town of Nakuru.

"My main issue is the economy," he said. "I'm voting for Uhuru because he is younger and has a better vision to move the country forward."

At 51, Kenyatta would be the youngest Kenyan president ever if he wins. Odinga is 68.

'Things average citizens worry about'

Harrison Mario, 37, said his vote is based on issues and policies, and will go to Odinga.

"Basically, he has been fighting for inequality." he said. "He has been campaigning for the less fortunate -- his manifesto focuses on security, education and food -- things an average citizen worries about."

Both leaders are campaigning on almost the same policies, leaving the more than 14 million registered voters to choose based on criteria including personality, ethnicity and links to political parties.

"I don't know that much about their differences, so I'm voting for candidate of my favorite political party," said Susan Kamau, who lives in Nairobi. "In short, I'm voting on loyalty to my party, not issues."

In addition to the presidential race, the nation will also pick a president, governors, senators and a slew of other local candidates under the new constitution.

Complicated history

Whoever wins, the race brings back memories of a political dynasty.

Kenyatta's father was the nation's founding president, while Odinga's father served as his vice president in the 1960s.

Both started out as allies in the fight against independence from Britain, but they had a falling out that led Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, to force out Jaramogi Odinga, a Luo, as his vice president.

Their tense history has strained relations for decades between Kikuyus and Luos.

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