A millionaire opposition leader who cast himself as a champion of the poor appears poised to win the closest presidential election in Kenya’s history, according to preliminary and unofficial media tallies.
The race pits President Mwai Kibaki against his former ally, Raila Odinga, and marks the first time an incumbent has faced a credible challenge in Kenya’s four decades of independence from Britain.
The election campaign had focused largely on corruption, with both candidates vowing to end the graft and tribal favouritism that has tainted politics here for years.
Kenyans clustered around radios and televisions as results trickled in from around the country, but last night the electoral commission had announced preliminary results in only 68 of Kenya’s 210 constituencies.
Those counts, which show Mr Odinga with a slim lead of 1,665,714 to Mr Kibaki’s 1,169,631, must still be certified.
Unofficial results by local media, taken from tallies at some polling centres, also put Mr Odinga in the lead, but the groups warned that not all constituencies had been checked.
Nation Media Group reported last night that Mr Odinga had 56%, with 1,745,580 votes, to Kibaki’s 37% and 1,188,730 votes.
Feeling confident of a win, Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement party said the government was deliberately delaying results because it was losing. Police appealed for calm as tempers flared over the pace of the count.
Violence was a major concern in the run-up to the election, and several diplomats have expressed concern that a narrow victory on either side could lead to rioting by those who do not accept or trust the results. But the voting was generally orderly, and no major disruptions were reported.
“We’d like the ECK (Electoral Commission of Kenya) to announce the results in order to ensure that the political temperature does not go up,” said Joseph Nyagah, an ODM official.
But Constance Newman, head of an American observer group, said the official process was cumbersome, likening it to “molasses in winter”. The European Union observer team said there was no immediate evidence of rigging.
Police Commissioner Mohamed Hussein Ali tried to head off any tension, urging whoever won “not to engage in unbridled celebrations that will cause resentment”. To the losers, he instructed: “Take it with dignity.”
Mr Kibaki appealed for Kenyans to wait for the official results. Ngari Gituku, a spokesman for Kibaki’s Party of National Unity, refused to comment further, saying: “We do not want to upstage democracy.”
Mr Kibaki won by a landslide in 2002, ending 24 years in power by Daniel arap Moi, who was constitutionally barred from extending his term. Mr Moi’s blanket use of patronage resulted in crippling mismanagement and a culture of corruption that plunged Kenya into an economic crisis.
Mr Kibaki, 76, has been credited with helping boost the East African nation’s economy, with a growth rate that is among the highest in Africa and a booming tourism industry. But his anti-corruption campaign has largely been seen as a failure and the country still struggles with tribalism and poverty.
Mr Odinga, a 62-year-old former political prisoner under Moi, has run a fiery campaign, with supporters dressed in orange T-shirts that said: “Raila Odinga - the people’s president.”
He has drawn cheering crowds by driving his massive car, a Hummer, into his main constituency, which is also one of the largest slums in Africa. Mr Kibera, a maze of potholed tracks and ramshackle dwellings, is home to at least 700,000 people who live in severe poverty.
But like Mr Kibaki, Mr Odinga has been accused of failing to do enough to help his constituents during 15 years as a member of parliament.