NAIROBI, Kenya — Polls opened Tuesday in Kenya’s unusual presidential election, where a longtime opposition leader who is backed by the outgoing president faces the deputy president who styles himself as the outsider.
The election is considered close, and East Africa’s economic hub could see a presidential runoff for the first time. Hundreds of voters lined up hours ahead of polls opening in some locations.
The top candidates are Raila Odinga, who has vied for the presidency for a quarter-century, and deputy president William Ruto, who has stressed his journey from a humble childhood to appeal to millions of struggling Kenyans long accustomed to political dynasties.
“In moments like this is when the mighty and the powerful come to the realization that it is the simple and the ordinary that eventually make the choice,” a smiling Ruto told journalists after becoming one of the first voters. “ I look forward to our victorious day.” He urged Kenyans to be peaceful and respect others’ choices.
More than 22 million people are registered to vote in this election in which economic issues could be of greater importance than the ethnic tensions that have marked past votes with sometimes deadly results.
Outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, cut across the usual ethnic lines by backing longtime rival Odinga after their bitter 2017 election contest. But both Odinga and Ruto have chosen running mates from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu.
Odinga has made history by choosing running mate Martha Karua, the first woman to be a leading contender for the deputy presidency. “Make your voice heard,” she said after voting early in a knitted cap, a sign of the unusually cold weather in parts of the country.
Rising food and fuel prices, huge government debt, high unemployment and widespread corruption mean economic issues are at the center of an election in which unregulated campaign spending highlighted the country’s inequality.
Kenyans are hoping for a peaceful vote. Elections can be exceptionally troubled, as in 2007 when the country exploded after Odinga claimed the vote had been stolen from him and more than 1,000 people were killed. In 2017, the high court overturned the election results, a first in Africa, after Odinga challenged them over irregularities. He then boycotted the new vote and proclaimed himself the “people’s president,” bringing allegations of treason. A handshake between him and Kenyatta calmed the crisis.
This is likely Odinga’s last try at age 77, and Kenyans and election observers will be watching to see how his often passionate supporters react to the results and any allegations of rigging.
Official results must be announced within a week of the election, but impatience is expected if they don’t come before this weekend. The underfunded Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission is under pressure to ensure an untroubled vote.