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Fears of renewed violence in tight Kenya poll race

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Kenyans head to the polls Monday to elect a new president for the first time since deadly post-election unrest rocked the nation five years ago, with observers warning of possible fresh violence in the tight race.

Leading candidates have publically pledged there will be no repeat of the bloodshed that followed the disputed 2007 polls in which over 1,100 people were killed and some 600,000 fled their homes, but tensions are running high nonetheless.

Campaigning has been intense with opinion polls placing presidential hopeful Prime Minister Raila Odinga neck-and-neck with Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta -- who along with his running mate faces trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged roles in orchestrating murder, rape and violence after the last election.

Watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch have warned that the risk of renewed political violence is "perilously high".

At least 484 people in the country were killed and over 116,000 fled their homes due to ethnic violence last year, according to the United Nations.

In one of the most complex polls Kenya has ever held, voters will cast six ballots for the president, parliament, governors, senators and councillors.

That means potential for tensions on a local and national level.

The vote also raises the prospect that Kenya -- a popular tourist destination with a growing economy buoyed by foreign investment -- could follow the path of pariah state Sudan, the only other country to elect a president indicted by the ICC.

Kenya, a traditional ally of Western nations, is also viewed as a strategic nation in terms of counter-terrorism, with Kenyan troops battling Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in Somalia.

But the 2007-2008 violence exposed widespread disenchantment with the political class, deep tribal divisions and shattered Kenya's image as a beacon of regional stability.

Observers expect some violence in the upcoming polls -- all of Kenya's elections have seen some conflict and election-related attacks have already taken place -- although foreign diplomats say they are cautiously optimistic.

But the looming ICC trials, where two top candidates face trial, have greatly raised the stakes of winning or losing the national vote.

Richard Dowden, director of Britain's Royal African Society, has called the ICC an "exceedingly dangerous factor supercharging this election".

"Those indicted may feel they have nothing to lose and their best bet is to get elected by any stratagem available" in the hope of defying the court once in office, Dowden wrote in a recent article.

---'Violence is not inevitable' --

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Some Kenyans in flashpoint areas have packed up ahead of the polls, especially in areas that saw violence last time, or where a Kenyan belongs to a minority ethnic group in that area.

"I want to ensure my safety," said Kepha Ongicho, who works in a general store near the Rift Valley town of Naivasha, the base of multiple international flower farms. "I cannot take the risk of staying because I don't know what will happen."

But more checks are in place this time, including better systems to limit vote rigging, greater public awareness of the bloody cost of violence, and a new constitution devolving powers to make the presidential poll less of a winner-takes-all race.

"The general election could be relatively free and fair, and violence is not inevitable," said Gabrielle Lynch, a politics professor at Britain's Warwick University. "However, it is dangerous to be complacent."

With President Mwai Kibaki stepping down after completing two terms in power, eight candidates are in the running for the top job to lead the 41 million people in East Africa's economic powerhouse.

While Kenyatta and Odinga are the frontrunners, few apart from their core supporters believe they can win the necessary absolute majority outright, setting up a probable second round run-off likely sometime in April.

Kenyatta and fellow ICC-charged running mate William Ruto however will be likely spared the potential diary clash between a second round and their trial -- due to start April 10 -- after ICC prosecutors suggested a possible delay until August.

Nevertheless, should Kenyatta win, the country could face the absence of its president and vice-president for several months, if not years, in The Hague.

Ruto, who like Kenyatta professes his innocence, has told voters they can govern Kenya from abroad since "even as I attend to other issues... we can chew gum and still scale the stairs at the same time."

Odinga, however, has scoffed at the suggestion of trying "to run a government by Skype".

Diplomats say that potential legal restrictions only come into play should Kenyatta and Ruto end their cooperation with the court.

But even if a victorious Kenyatta cooperates with the ICC as promised, it would be "difficult for many countries to have normal diplomatic relations" while donors might reduce bilateral assistance, the International Crisis Group has warned.

However, the same issues remain even if Odinga wins, should he then decide for political expediency -- for instance not wanting to rile the supporters of a defeated Kenyatta -- to allow the ICC indictees to avoid trial.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130228/fears-renewed-violence-tight-kenya-poll-race