Kenyans lined up before dawn to vote in a high-stakes election Tuesday, with the East African powerhouse on edge as two political heavyweights battle it out in a fiercely contested race for the presidency.
Kenyans are praying for a peaceful transition of power after almost a decade under President Uhuru Kenyatta, but concerns about vote-rigging linger in a nation still haunted by previous election disputes that descended into deadly violence.
More than 22 million people are registered to vote in an election taking place against a backdrop of soaring prices for food and fuel, a punishing drought that has left millions hungry, and deep disenchantment with the political elite, particularly among the youth.
Deputy president and erstwhile heir apparent William Ruto, 55, is pitted against Raila Odinga, the 77-year-old veteran opposition leader now backed by his longtime rival Kenyatta after a stunning shift in political allegiances.
Ruto, who portrays himself as the "hustler-in-chief" championing the poor, was among the first to vote in his Rift Valley stronghold on what he described as "D-day".
"I am confident that the people of Kenya will make the right choice that will take Kenya to the future," he said. "It is upon all of us to respect the choice of Kenyans and I look forward to a victorious day."
In Odinga's stronghold in the lakeside city of Kisumu, voters in lines many hundreds of metres long queued in the dark outside polling stations as motorcyclists passed by honking and blowing whistles.
"I woke up early so that I go and choose my leader who might bring change. I have hope in that," Moses Otieno Onam, 29, told AFP.
Polling stations opened from 6:00 am (0300 GMT) and are due to close at 5:00 pm (1400 GMT).
Analysts have in recent days suggested that Odinga, a onetime political prisoner and former prime minister who is making his fifth bid for the top job, could narrowly edge past his younger rival.
But if neither wins more than 50 percent, Kenya would be forced to hold a run-off for the first time in its history.
- Pleas for peaceful vote -
Despite mudslinging on the hustings and widespread disinformation, campaigning passed off largely peacefully in contrast to previous polls.
Pressure is on the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to ensure a free and fair vote in all six polls -- for the presidency as well as for senators, governors, lawmakers, woman representatives and some 1,500 county officials.
But already, the election has run into some hitches, with six IEBC officials arrested Monday and the commission suspending several local polls because of erroneous ballot papers.
Kenya's international partners are keenly watching the vote in a country considered a beacon of stability in a troubled region, with diplomats voicing cautious optimism it will pass off largely violence-free.
Both Odinga and Ruto have called for a peaceful vote, but fears remain that if the losing candidate challenges the outcome -- as widely expected -- the discord could erupt into street fighting.
Security is tight, with more than 150,000 officers being deployed.
The trauma of the 2007 election, which was followed by a horrific bout of politically motivated ethnic clashes that killed more than 1,100 people, still looms large.
And Odinga's challenge to the 2017 election result that saw then foe Kenyatta re-elected was met with a heavy-handed police response that left dozens dead.
The Supreme Court ordered a rerun in 2017, citing widespread irregularities.
No presidential election outcome has gone uncontested since 2002, and there will be an anxious wait for this year's results which are not expected for several days.
With neither Ruto nor Odinga belonging to the dominant Kikuyu tribe, which has produced three of the country's four presidents, the election will open a new chapter in Kenya's history.
- 'Life is tough' -
Ruto, who once sold chickens on the roadside, has painted the election as a battle between ordinary "hustlers" trying to put food on the table and "dynasties" -- the Kenyatta and Odinga families that have dominated Kenyan politics since independence from Britain in 1963.
Some observers say economic pressures could compete with tribal allegiances as the key factor driving voter behaviour in a country where a third of the population lives in poverty.
Lawyers David Mwaure and George Wajackoyah -- an eccentric former spy who wants to legalise marijuana -- are also standing for president but are likely to trail far behind the frontrunners.
If Odinga wins, his running mate Martha Karua would become deputy president, the first woman to hold the post.
The new president will face tricky challenges to get the economy back on its feet, rein in Kenya's mammoth $70 billion debt mountain and tackle the corruption that infects every level of society.
Already hit hard by the Covid pandemic that threw hundreds of thousands out of work, Kenyans are now battling soaring inflation as the war in Ukraine sends prices of basic goods spiralling.
"It's has become a necessity (to vote) because life has become tough. We need to elect someone to help this economy," said unemployed 29-year-old Rolland Kwatsima as he cast his ballot in the Nairobi slum of Kibera.
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