Kenyans poised for peaceful poll

Election this Friday may be the first vote not marred by violence since independence in 1963.

Mwai Kibaki sits in the shade in his garden, giving a press conference in a shortsleeve shirt with a leopard-skin pattern. His bandaged leg is propped up in front of him among the microphones and his right arm is hanging limp in his lap. He is recovering from a car crash last month.

Mr. Kibaki's eldest son, Jimmy, steps out onto the patio and observes the scene. "Dad's a little battered," he admits with a grin. "But we are well on track." All indications are that Kibaki will become Kenya's next president on Friday.

Like Kibaki, Kenya is a bit battered. After the 24-year reign by current President Daniel arap Moi, Kenya is faced with decimated economy and a legacy of corruption and political patronage. But this year, observers say that Kenya is poised for a change, and peaceful one at that. This peaceful transition of power would itself be a sign of progress in a country that has had a history of electoral violence.

"Kenyans have matured politically," says a senior Western diplomat. "I see a serious commitment on all sides to avoid violence and I believe this will be a more sober, calmer election than any of us could have predicted."

This will be only the third time since independence in 1963 that Kenyans are going to the polls in multiparty elections. In the months leading up to the vote in 1992, ethnic clashes erupted, leaving close to 2,000 people dead and forcing an estimated 300,000 others to flee their homes. When Kenyans went to the polls in 1997, violence again caused mass displacement and practically wiped out the tourism industry. This year, there had been expectations of the same.

But so far, the campaign has passed by without much ado. One reason is that the opposition managed to keep itself and its supporters united, insists Kibaki. In 1992, by contrast, the opposition parties spent more time fighting - literally - one another than competing with the ruling party. Mr. Moi won that election with only 36 percent of the vote.

The lesson apparently learned, the various opposition parties this year united to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) and chose Kibaki as their leader. And despite early concerns that the coalition would fall apart, it remained united and urged followers to conduct themselves peacefully.

"We arrived at an agreement to come together," Kibaki told reporters. "The solution is unity. There is no solution in fighting one's neighbors."

An independent poll conducted by the US based International Republican Institute finds Kibaki leading with 68.2 percent of the vote, with Moi's handpicked successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, getting only 21.4 percent (Moi himself is constitutionally barred from running again). The opposition's signature song - "Unbwogable," (or, "undefeatable," in Swahili slang) - is on its way to becoming a smash pop hit. Even Kenyatta admits he kind of likes it.

Mr. Kenyatta, son of Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and a graduate of Amherst College in Northampton, Mass., is by all accounts a likable, if untested, politician. Kenyatta and Kibaki are each hitting the same themes: both promise to end the culture of corruption, give the economy a needed boost, encourage more international lending, and provide the basic services - such as healthcare, electricity, and police protection - that have disintegrated over the years.

But this is not an election over issues, say observers, but rather the desire for change. Kenyatta is perceived as being too close to Moi, and some say the veteran politician would be running the show behind the scenes. This perception is working in favor of Kibaki.

Kibaki has all but ensured Moi that he will not be prosecuted for allegedly stealing money from the government. This, say observers, has left Moi in a magnanimous and peaceful mode. "Moi wants to leave in a grand fashion," says independent Kenyan political commentator Okech Kendo. "He does not want his departure to be marred by any violence."

One senior official from the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU), who requested anonymity, said that Moi pledged to step down gracefully following a request by President George W. Bush when the two men met in Washington last month.

Kenyatta has also reiterated this theme of peacefulness and reconciliation. In his campaign speeches, he has distanced himself from the violence of his party in the past, and asked that all voters accept the final results.

But despite the peaceful atmosphere, there are some signs that, as the elections hit the home stretch, the mood might change. Kenyan investigators are looking into a Saturday house fire that killed the husband, daughter, and five grandchildren of Dorcas Wumbui, a member of the KANU party. Family members suspect arson and say that they had previously complained to police about security in opposition-dominated areas.

And Kibaki has begun an onslaught against the ruling KANU government. He has accused it of looting the treasury and buying votes after it paid out some $57 million in tradable bonds from the treasury to well-connected businessmen, many of whom had bills outstanding for years. These businessmen, according to Kibaki, are expected to make hefty "donations" to the KANU in return for the favor - donations which will then be turned into payouts for voters.

"It's illegal, immoral, and an abuse of power," said Kibaki. "This is tantamount to theft and KANU knows this. The government is behaving like a pack of hyenas ... devouring the carcass of Kenya before taking flight."

Senior NARC member Raila Odinga said that if KANU "stole the elections" and was declared victorious, he would marshal a million Kenyans on the day after elections to storm State House and take over. When asked for his comments on his colleague's threat, Kibaki brushed the question away. "Everyone living in Kenya today knows we will win," he said sternly. "So don't try and divert our minds to unnecessary issues."

If Kenyans can indeed make it to the end of the week "behaving" themselves, says John Prendergast, Africa director of the International Crisis Group, a think tank in Washington, that will be an achievement in and of itself - no matter who wins.

"The amount of activism on behalf of peaceful democratic transformation in Kenya will carry over for years here, even if there is not immediate change," he says, "and lay the foundation for real democracy in the future."

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