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The accidental run-off: Kenya left in limbo by confusion at the polls

Days of recounts loom as voters struggle to fathom complex voting slips

Kenya was facing the possibility of an “accidental run-off” last night as hundreds of thousands of spoiled ballots threatened to force a recount, or deny the frontrunner an outright majority, in the country’s critical election.

With less than half the ballots counted from Monday’s vote, Uhuru Kenyatta, the wealthy son of the country’s founding father, led the race for the presidency with 53 per cent against the Prime Minister, Raila Odinga’s 42 per cent. The poll battle has been watched around the world for any sign of a repeat of the post-election violence that pushed the East Africa country close to a civil war five years ago.

After a largely peaceful vote, experts warned last night that there could be days of legal wrangles and recounts after the complexities of the voting process and poor preparations had undermined the conduct of the election.

“This is getting messy as they are effectively going to restart the whole count,” warned Charles Hornsby, author of Kenya: A History Since Independence. “It’s all fixable but it’s not going to be easy.”

Amid the uncertainty there were appeals for calm from candidates and election officials, while police had to be deployed to a Nairobi sports stadium where the votes from the capital are being collated. An unexpectedly high proportion of ballots, close to six per cent of the total vote, have been spoiled, officials revealed. As fresh results trickled into the capital, Nairobi, it emerged that Kenya’s electoral authority, the IEBC, had not included those ballots in its running totals. Lawyers then clarified that the 50 per cent winning margin would be measured against “all votes cast” meaning the rejected votes counted.

Under Kenya’s new constitution, framed to avoid a repeat of the ethnic violence of five years ago, a host of new government posts have been created, complicating polling day for ordinary voters. Returning officers, who had to grapple with malfunctioning new biometric voter identification kits, appeared to have failed to pick up on confused voters with handfuls of ballot papers posting presidential ones in the wrong box.

As the scale of the mix-up became clear the head of IEBC, Isaack Hassan, admitted he was “worried”. The revised percentages, combined with an expected bump for the second-placed Mr Odinga, in votes still to be counted, would make it hard for Mr Kenyatta to get the 50 per cent plus one vote that he needs to win in a single round. A diplomatic intervention to smooth any disputes is unlikely as the frontrunner is due to stand trial at The Hague later this year over his alleged role in the violence that killed 1,300 people at the previous election.

Neither of the leading candidates is thought to want a run-off after an ill-tempered campaign that has once again picked at the seams of Kenya’s mosaic of ethnic communities. Esther Passaris, a Nairobi businesswoman who campaigned for the role of national women’s representative, said she had been disappointed by another tribal campaign: “We embrace our own,” she said. “There will come a time when it’s about leadership but we’re not there yet.”

The government was forced to admit last week that the treasury was empty and many political hopefuls are broke after lavish campaign spending in Kenya’s first “billion dollar” election.

Many Kenyans, such as Mustapha Hersi, a trader in the Somali-dominated Eastleigh district of the capital, care less about who wins than getting a swift outcome: “We don’t want more elections and we don’t want a second round. The uncertainty is bad for business.”

The election

What happens next?

It is feared that as many as 600,000 of the more than 10 million ballots have been spoiled. Some voters may have spoiled their papers in protest but most are likely to have posted in the wrong ballot box. With so many rejected votes it will be hard for any candidate to win an outright majority. If the ballots from the wrong boxes are tallied it could take days before there is a result.

Why do delays matter?

The frontrunner for president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his running mate William Ruto are already facing trial at the ICC over their alleged role in ethnic violence at the last election. Confusion and claims of rigging five years ago pushed rival communities in East Africa’s biggest economy into violent clashes. Before a peace deal ended the fighting, 1,300 people died and 600,000 lost their homes. Kenyans, and the international community, fear a repeat of such violence in the absence of a firm result.

Daniel Howden