NAIROBI — Two months after Kenya's Supreme Court annulled the country's presidential election, a rescheduled vote slated for Thursday holds major implications for East Africa's largest economy and most important political power broker.
But almost nothing has gone as planned in the weeks leading up to the election rerun, and with the vote imminent, the list of uncertainties runs long. Kenya was once seen as among the region’s most stable nations, but this year’s election cycle has left it on the verge of a political crisis.
The opposition leader, Raila Odinga, has said he will not run Thursday, alleging that the electoral commission is biased. The commission's chairman has suggested that the body is not prepared to hold a credible election, and one of its members has fled to the United States after reporting that she received death threats.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court was set to rule on a request for another delay, but remarkably it was unable to convene enough judges to issue a decision, a testament to the pressure facing the judiciary as well as the dysfunction that has plagued every step of the electoral process. The deputy chief justice's bodyguard was shot and injured Tuesday night, sending a shock wave through the court.
“This potentially could have been the election that consolidated Kenya as one of Africa’s most vibrant democracies, and now what you’ll have is an election with no winners,” said Murithi Mutiga, a researcher at the International Crisis Group.
In early September, Kenya's Supreme Court ruled that an August vote won by President Uhuru Kenyatta had been marred by irregularities. For the first time in recent memory in Africa, a top judicial body demanded a fresh election. It also requested an overhaul of the electoral commission.
The surprise ruling was hailed as evidence of Kenya's judicial autonomy, but it precipitated two of the most tumultuous months in the country's modern political history, inflicting a major blow on the country's economy as the currency fell and investors grew nervous. The court's decision has also deepened the tribal rift that defines Kenyan politics, with Kenyatta's Kikuyu tribe and its political allies pitted against Odinga's Luo tribe.
Kenyatta accepted the court's decision but called the judges "thugs." Odinga briefly rejoiced in the ruling but a month later said he was quitting the race because he was not satisfied with the changes to the electoral electoral commission.
The court had outlined many problems with the first iteration of the election. Among them was that roughly 10,000 paper forms from polling stations, each containing the documentation of anywhere from dozens to hundreds of votes, were missing when the results were announced.
Odinga hoped that by withdrawing from the race, he would prompt the commission to delay the vote, ostensibly giving it more time to adopt new measures and him more time to campaign. Political analysts and Western diplomats have suggested that he has run out of money.
But, puzzlingly, Odinga did not sign the required form to withdraw his candidacy, so his name was still printed on the ballots.
Odinga's concerns about the electoral process appeared to be bolstered when the commission's chairman, Wafula Chebukati, said his colleagues had failed to pass sufficient changes. "I am convinced that without critical changes in the key secretariat staff, we may not have a free, fair and credible election," he said last week.
In a speech Wednesday afternoon, Odinga told his supporters, "Do not participate in any way in the sham election." He suggested that his party was going to transform into a "resistance movement" and said another Kenyatta term would be an "electoral dictatorship."
Odinga did not seem to encourage violent protests and instead asked that people "hold vigil and prayers away from polling stations." But many of his followers, particularly in western Kenya, seemed intent on leading public protests Thursday that would probably lead to confrontations with police.
The European Union announced Tuesday that it would reduce the size of its observer mission because of safety concerns.
The result could be an election that Kenyatta wins easily but leaves him with a victory seen as illegitimate by a large portion of the country. In August, Kenyatta won 54 percent of the vote to Odinga’s 44 percent.
Mutiga worries that a Kenyatta victory in the absence of a competitive election could lead to a “slow-burning crisis of legitimacy with a significant portion of the population feeling that the government doesn’t represent them.”
Already, in recent weeks, Odinga supporters have disrupted several poll-worker training sessions in an apparent attempt to stymie the election.
In a statement Monday, 20 Western envoys expressed some confidence in the commission, known as the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). "The IEBC has made changes in personnel and procedures that address many of the concerns raised and that strengthen its technical ability to conduct an election," they said.
Yet in a statement Wednesday, the diplomats said the election rerun is a pivotal moment: “Kenya is at risk of losing much of what it has gained since 2008 unless it comes together at this crucial moment to preserve its democracy and fundamental freedoms.”
Across Nairobi, supporters of Kenyatta and Odinga considered their roles in the country's unpredictable election rerun. "We will take to the streets," said Samuel Maina, an Odinga supporter living in the Mathare slum on the outskirts of the city. "Let them kill us. We will be there even with our grandmothers." Like many of Odinga's supporters, Maina said he would not vote in the election.
But some Odinga supporters suggested they would avoid potentially dangerous protests that will only cost them more economically. Already, business has slowed significantly across the country. "How will I close my business to protest? Who will pay me that day?" asked Lillian Ochieng, an Odinga supporter who owns a beauty shop in Mathare. "Even if Uhuru wins, I have to go on with my life."
On the other side of Mathare, where many Kenyatta supporters live, the mood was more buoyant.
“Odinga isn’t accepting the election because he has been defeated,” said Simon Njenga, who owns a men’s clothing store.
But concern had crept in that if Odinga does inspire huge protests — and those protests turn violent — another period of uncertainty could begin.
“It’s obvious there will be violence, and it’s hard not to be nervous when those who protest have no fear of the police,” said Kevin Kariuki, a university student.