At a rally in Nairobi, the trial was a key reason many said they were voting for Kenyatta’s main rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga. “We feel Uhuru has to clear his name first to become our leader,” said Jacqueline Atieto, 26, a teacher.
Kenyans vote Monday in the first national elections here since the disputed 2007 polls. The contests for a new president, parliament and local offices are unfolding against a volatile landscape — at least 200 people have been killed in politically linked attacks in recent months — and many fear that their nation could again descend into horrific violence.
After the 2007 vote, neighbors hacked neighbors to death and people were burned alive in the country’s worst violence since independence in 1963. More than half a million people were displaced in the fighting, which devastated the economy and shattered the country’s image as an oasis of stability. Then, as now, tribalism and land rights were divisive electoral issues.
The stakes are high for the United States and its allies, too. Kenya has been a model of economic development and is a key partner in the fight against al-Shabab, a militia linked to al-Qaeda in neighboring Somalia.
Eight candidates are vying to replace President Mwai Kibaki, who is stepping down after more than a decade in power. Polls indicate a tight race between Odinga and Kenyatta, who is currently deputy prime minister. Despite the presence of Western observers and the use of high-tech equipment to count votes, allegations of election rigging could surface in the close race. Tensions are already rising in some areas between Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe and Odinga’s Luo, and police say hundreds of thousands of illegal weapons are in the hands of ordinary citizens.
U.S. and Western diplomats are concerned that al-Shabab might attack polling stations and other targets during the vote; the militia vowed to stage large-scale attacks in Kenya after the country sent troops to Somalia in 2011.
Many Kenyans are taking precautions. Slum dwellers in the capital have sent their children to villages. Middle-class Kenyans are stocking up on food, fuel and other supplies. And many expatriates have left the country, waiting out the elections in neighboring countries or back home.
Further complicating the elections is a new player: the International Criminal Court at the Hague, which is scheduled later this year to place four Kenyans, including Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, on trial for alleged crimes committed after the last elections. Both men are accused of instigating mobs that killed and pillaged.
Complicating the ballot
If Kenyatta and Ruto are elected, it would mark the first time that a nation has democratically elected two candidates indicted by the ICC.