Results of Kenya’s presidential election re-run began to trickle in on Friday with early estimates of the turnout at below 35 percent, dealing a blow to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s hopes for a decisive second-term mandate.
With nearly all followers of opposition leader Raila Odinga heeding the veteran’s call for a boycott, Kenyatta’s victory is not in question.
Less clear is his ability to unite the east African nation, whose deep ethnic divisions have been exposed during a bloody and chaotic election process stretched over the last three months and multiple court cases.
The first election, in August, was annulled by the courts because of procedural irregularities, denying Kenyatta a simple victory over his long-term political rival. Turnout in that election was 80 percent.
If the expected legal challenges fail to clear a path out of the crisis, including a possible order for another re-run, the result will be a protracted and economically damaging political stalemate between the Kenyatta and Odinga camps.
“Unless the courts annul the election, Kenyatta will move forward without a clear mandate and Odinga will pursue a protest strategy whose chances of success in the circumstances are not very high,” International Crisis Group analyst Murithi Mutiga said.
Voting on Thursday passed off without a hitch in pro-Kenyatta areas but was marred by skirmishes between police and stone-throwing opposition supporters in four pro-Odinga counties where polling stations were prevented from opening.
The division was neatly captured in local media, with the Standard, a leading tabloid, headlining its front page: “One Kenya, two faces”.
The outcome is being closely watched across East Africa, which relies on Kenya as a trade and logistics hub, and in the West, which considers Nairobi a bulwark against Islamist militancy in Somalia and conflict in South Sudan and Burundi.
The election commission said more than one in 10 polling stations failed to open due to “security challenges”. Its chairman, Wafula Chebukati, tweeted overnight that 6.55 million ballots had been cast – just 34.5 percent of registered voters.
Election officials postponed voting in the trouble-spots – all staunchly pro-Odinga districts – for 48 hours although the delay is unlikely to make any difference.
In all, four people were shot dead by police – three in the pro-Odinga western city of Kisumu, governor Anyang Nyong’o said, and one in the neighbouring county of Homa Bay, police said.
Around 50 people have been killed, mostly by security forces, since the original Aug. 8 vote, raising fears of sustained violence only a decade after 1,200 people were killed in serious ethnic fighting triggered by another disputed vote. On Friday morning, shops started to reopen and traffic returned to Kisumu and the restive Nairobi slums of Kibera and Mathare, although rocks and the remnants of burnt barricades sill littered the roads.
Opposition lawyers may cite the failure to open polling stations in a swathe of the country as a reason to declare the poll unconstitutional and seek a fresh contest.
Other grounds could include a High Court ruling the day before the election that said hundreds of election officers had been improperly recruited.
“The election obviously did not conform to constitutional requirements,” said James Orengo, co-chair of the opposition legal team. But he said no decision on whether to file a case had been reached yet. The team has seven days after polls close to file a case.
On Friday, amendments to an election law became legal that curtail reasons the Supreme Court can cite to nullify an election. Kenyatta had not signed the amendments, but they were pending long enough to become law, his spokesman said.
Opposition supporters hailed the Supreme Court when it overturned Kenyatta’s August win in an unexpected and historic rebuke to election authorities.
But for many, the tarnish returned after five out of seven judges failed to show up for a hearing on Wednesday seeking to delay the polls.
Chief Justice David Maraga said one was sick, one was stranded and another too upset to show up after her bodyguard was shot the night before, an unsolved attack many Kenyans interpreted as a threat. He did not account for the other two.
“I think it was deliberately choreographed,” said motorcycle taxi driver Steve Aluoch in Kisumu. “I would not be surprised if a similar charade plays out if a petition is filed.”