Hold on power is uncertain in Kenyan politics

Voters might well reject the president in this week's vote

December 23, 2007|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,Los Angeles Times

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Citizens here might soon do something rarely done in Africa: vote out a president.

As the Dec. 27 Kenyan election race nears, Raila Odinga is enjoying a narrow lead over President Mwai Kibaki, several opinion polls show.

That's uncommon in sub-Saharan Africa, land of the Big Man, where leaders seldom suffer defeat - even if it means using their power to pull strings.

Nigeria's presidential vote this year was marred by allegations of widespread rigging. Post-election riots in Ethiopia killed nearly 200 people in 2005. Uganda's president changed his country's constitution to run for a third term.

But Kenya is earning a reputation as an oasis of political stability in Africa, thanks to a succession of fair and stable elections, even when results defied the wishes of the sitting government.

In 2002 voters rejected then-President Daniel Arap Moi's hand-picked successor. Three years later, they defeated a government-backed constitutional referendum. In both cases, the votes passed with little violence or backlash.

Now Kenyans say they are looking forward to exercising their democratic muscles again.

"These old men just don't want to retire or accept the fact that they're going home," said Martin Kyalo, 32, an electrical engineer in Nairobi who plans to vote against the 76-year-old president. "We need to try someone else. We are crying out for change."

Kibaki still might secure a second term. Polls during the past several months give Odinga a lead of only 4 percentage points. But the closeness of the race has been a reminder to politicians that voters in this East African country won't be taken for granted.

Security guard John Nakitere, 30, said he is voting for Odinga because he is frustrated by stagnant salaries, inflation and unemployment. But Nakitere also has his eye on the 2012 election. "If Odinga doesn't do any better, we'll use the same knife to remove him from power in five years."

The campaign has been punctuated by isolated instances of violence, chiefly involving local races, and a few allegations about schemes to buy votes or tamper with ballots. One female candidate for Parliament was shot to death this month in a possible election-related assassination.

But most leaders, Western diplomats and voters expressed optimism that the vote will pass freely and peacefully.

"Do not hate your neighbor because he is supporting another party," Kibaki recently urged Kenyans. "Do not assault him. Vote for the one you like. We shall be friends even after the elections."

For Kenya, a third consecutive fair and stable election would mark a significant step on its road to democratization. Just five years ago, the nation lived under virtual dictatorship.

"We view Kenya as setting an example, not only for the East Africa region but the continent as a whole," U.S. Ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger said. "When you look at the democratic space in Kenya over the past five years, it's remarkable."

Two of Kenya's best-known career politicians are pitted against each other. Both Kibaki and Odinga served stints inside the government and outside as opposition leaders.

Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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