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Kenyans head to polls in tightly contested, closely watched election

Former prime minister Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto are vying for the highest office

Maasai voters line up during Kenya's general election Aug. 9. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI — Kenyans went to the polls Tuesday in a hotly contested presidential election pitting two of the country’s most prominent politicians against each other.

Former prime minister Raila Odinga, 77, who is making his fifth bid for the country’s highest office, says he wants to root out corruption, funnel money to Kenya’s poorest residents and implement reforms to address the skyrocketing prices of food and fuel in this East African nation. The left-leaning veteran opposition leader has the backing of term-limited President Uhuru Kenyatta, a former adversary with whom he formed an alliance in 2018.

Deputy President William Ruto, 55, argues that he will better represent Kenya’s poor with a “bottom-up” economic model targeted toward small businesses and addressing unemployment, often describing how he became successful only after working as a chicken farmer in his youth. Ruto, who publicly fell out with Kenyatta during their second term in government, has tried to frame the election as a competition between “hustlers” like himself and “dynasties” like those of the Kenyattas and Odingas.

As Kenyans cast their ballots, many said they wanted to avoid a repeat of the violence that has overshadowed past elections and had high hopes for peace. Post-election violence in 2008 left more than 1,000 dead and 600,000 displaced, and the most recent election in 2017 was marred by street riots and a prolonged period of turbulence after a botched vote.

“We’ve grown up,” Betty Kasaya Velma, 44, said of the country after casting her ballot in the Westlands neighborhood, predicting the process would go smoothly.

Velma, a mother of three, said she had been devastated by the rising prices of “everything” in Kenya, including food, fuel and school fees. She voted for Odinga, who served as a political prisoner in the 1980s and helped usher in Kenya’s multiparty system, saying he represented the best shot at change.

“He is a natural, and he’s a fighter,” she said.

Kenya's Raila Odinga and William Ruto are in a tight race ahead of the presidential election on Aug. 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

The election is being closely watched abroad, including in Washington. Kenya has been an important counterterrorism ally of the United States and a source of stability in the region.

Analysts predict that the contest could be one of the closest in recent history. A runoff vote would be triggered if neither candidate reaches a 50 percent majority, which could depend on the success of a third candidate, George Wajackoyah, whose platform is built around legalizing medicinal marijuana. While some of Wajackoyah’s ideas are seen as outlandish — including exporting hyena testicles — the reggae-loving professor has won passionate fans.

Election officials said Tuesday evening that turnout was 56 percent at 4 p.m. Final results will be announced within a week and could come as early as Wednesday, depending on when counting is finished, officials said.

The winner will have to address the country’s massive debt, soaring inflation, a drought in the north that has left millions hungry and increasing youth unemployment. Many voters are disenchanted, unsure whether either Odinga or Ruto would keep their pledges.

“I don’t think many of their promises are based on rationality,” said Timothy Njoya, a retired reverend and human rights activist. “They are based on making people feel happy, on entertainment.”

This election, he said, is “the worst in the history of Kenya” describing the choice between Odinga and Ruto as one “between a burglar and a cattle rustler.”

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This year, both Odinga and Ruto have publicly raised concerns with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, the body charged with overseeing the election, citing issues including technical preparedness and the disappearance of voters from the registry. But both have also said they will accept the election results.

“If I lose fairly, I will be the first to concede defeat,” Odinga said in an interview at his mansion in Kisumu, in western Kenya. “But if it is not fair, then I will follow the normal channels to address the issues.”

In recent days, both tickets have filled stadiums with energized supporters, with Ruto’s supporters dancing and wearing shirts at a rally in Nairobi on Saturday that declared, “Freedom is coming.” In Kisumu, Odinga’s hometown, his fans last week held a massive gavel to symbolize the justice they believe Odinga and his running mate, Martha Karua, will bring. Karua would be the first woman to serve as Kenya’s deputy president.

After casting her vote in Nairobi, Anne Mugure, 61, said she thought Ruto would do the best job. As part of the Kikuyu tribe, she said had reservations about Odinga, who is from the Luo tribe. Ruto’s description of himself as a “hustler” also resonated with the grandmother, who said she often works multiple jobs to get by.

“Even I am hustling,” she said.