Kenyans head to the polls on Tuesday in crucial elections as incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta prepares to hand over power to a new leader.
About 22 million Kenyans have registered to vote, the country’s electoral body (IEBC) saidand polls opened from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. local time (11 p.m. ET Monday to 10 a.m. ET Tuesday).
Voters across the country began lining up as early as 2 a.m. local time in some locations, according to local media.
Analysts say the race is tight, with neither leading contender significantly higher than the other. If no candidate obtains more than 50% of the vote, the election will go to a second round for the first time in Kenya’s history.
Tuesday’s presidential election, according to opinion pollsis seen as a two-horse race between Vice President William Ruto, 55, and veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga, 77.
Odinga is a businessman and politician who served as Kenya’s prime minister for five years following the disputed December 2007 presidential election that led to widespread protests and violence, leaving more than 1,000 dead.
Odinga is part of Kenya’s political dynasty; his father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga served as the first vice-president of independent Kenya.
He earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in East Germany in 1970 and was a lecturer at the University of Nairobi after his studies abroad.
He is participating in the ballot for the fifth and final time, he says after failing on his previous four attempts.
Odinga has received backing from rival former President Kenyatta, who overlooked his deputy Ruto for the top job.
Affectionately known as “Baba” by Kenyans, he pledged to establish social protection and a universal health care program called granny for poor households. Free education up to the college level is also part of its plans.
This may be the year of Odinga, according to journalist and political analyst Moses Odhiambo.
“There is a feeling that whichever side the government seems to be leaning on is winning. If you borrow opinion polls, then Raila has an advantage,” Odhiambo told CNN.
Odinga’s main opponent, Ruto, describes himself as the “Hustler-in-Chief”, citing his humble beginnings as a chicken seller who worked his way to one of the highest political offices in the world. Kenya.
Ruto, a former teacher with a doctorate in plant ecology from the University of Nairobi, has taken a populist “man of the people” approach, designed to capture Kenya’s biggest electoral bloc – the youth.
And he seems to be succeeding, veteran political analyst Herman Manyora told CNN: “Ruto has excited young people…almost in a euphoric sense. This could help entice them to show up and vote.
Ruto pledged to prioritize Kenya’s economy and “elevate ordinary citizens” if elected president.
“There is a world of difference between me and my competitor. I have a plan, he doesn’t,” Ruto says of Odinga.
Ruto was also tried alongside Kenyatta in 2013 to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands for alleged crimes against humanity following the 2007 election violence. However, the charges were then thrown away.
Although the election would bring about a change of administration, Ruto and Odinga’s affiliation with the current government does not necessarily provide a new political phenomenon, argues analyst Odhiambo.
“Among the favorites, people are keen to strike a balance between what is perceived as continuity and freshness within a continuity,” Odhiambo said.
“Ruto is the vice president and part of the current government. There is a perception that Odinga could be an extension of the current president due to the support the president has given him.
Among the top pressing issues for the electorate are a myriad of economic problems ranging from growing debt to high food and fuel prices and massive youth unemployment.
Parts of the country are also suffering from a debilitating drought that threatens to exacerbate the growing problems of insecurity.
According to analyst Manyora, many Kenyans, especially young people, are disillusioned with the government and may boycott the elections.
“There are things that could affect the turnout. One is the disillusionment in the country with the high cost of living, the helplessness and hopelessness of young people, unemployment, poverty levels and the fact that people see nothing of what politicians are doing to them,” the analyst said.
He added that Kenya’s problems would normally make his compatriots vote for the right candidates, regardless of their tribe, but they are not “angry enough”.
“One would expect that because of these issues, Kenyans would go to the polls in large numbers to express their anger at the high cost of living by removing those responsible…I don’t think Kenyans be at a point where they are angry enough to translate the anger into political action,” Manyora told CNN.
Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin and Luo are four of the East African countries. most populous ethnic groups.
Outgoing leader Kenyatta is part of three of the four Kenyan presidents from the dominant Kikuyu ethnic group since the country’s independence in 1963.
“The problem in this country is that tribal considerations supersede everything else…Most of the votes cast would be based on tribe; very few votes will come from critical voters,” analyst Manyora said.
Ruto is from the Kalenjin tribe and Odinga is from the Luo ethnicity.
The two men crossed the country before concluding their campaigns this weekend and sought support from those outside their strongholds.
The two candidates also picked their running mates from Kikuyu – one of Kenya’s largest electoral blocs – also known as the Mount Kenya region.
Ruto is running alongside first-term MP Rigathi Gachagua while Odinga is on the ballot with former justice minister and former presidential candidate Martha Karua.
Karua will become Kenya’s first female vice president if elected. Analyst Odhiambo says the choice of Odinga as running mate has excited women in Kenya.
“There is a growing wave of support around female leadership which has been accelerated by Odinga’s choice of Martha as his running mate,” he said.
Women make up 49% of registered voters in Kenya, according to the country’s electoral commission.
Only the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes have produced the country’s presidents and this is the first election where none of the leading candidates are Kikuyu.
No candidate from the Luo tribe has won a presidential election.