NO matter what the outcome of today's multiparty contest for president, parliament, and local gov- ernment in Kenya, the election marks a historic turning point.
Never has Kenya's potential for progress toward democracy, or a slide into chaos, been so great.
A front-page commentary in the Daily Nation newspaper in Kenya yesterday read: "Tomorrow and the next few days are going to be the most important in the history of modern Kenya and they are cause for genuine concern by all patriots."
A fair election, widely accepted by the public, could cement democratic gains, including greater freedom of speech and press, made since Dec. 2, 1991, when President Daniel arap Moi reluctantly bowed to Western and domestic pressure to legalize opposition parties.
"Regardless of who wins, we are on the multiparty trail," says Lee Muthoga, a prominent nonpartisan Kenyan attorney. "We are going to have a parliament comprised of several parties. We are never likely to have a president who exudes overall powers over [parliament] and other institutions."
Mr. Muthoga cautions that "if the result of elections is the upsurge of violence, then a lot of the gains made in the last few months could be easily lost."
A serious post-election conflict, Muthoga says, could reverse the progress Kenya has made toward democracy in the past year by prompting the military to step in and take power.
Most Kenyans go to the polls with deep hopes for economic recovery and a peaceful outcome.
But on the coast, many Muslims remain angry over the government's failure to recognize a Muslim political party. And the main recognized opposition parties continue to charge the government with rigging the pre-electoral process, including blocking some opposition parliamentary candidates from filing their papers to get on the ballot.
In Nairobi, a hotbed for antigoverment sentiment, many stores remained closed yesterday, possibly in anticipation of preelection violence.
Some opposition leaders also have warned of potential civil conflict if President Moi, who has been in power for 14 years, is reelected. They imply that Moi could only win in a rigged poll.
Moi ignored a ban on election-eve campaigning, stumping in various parts of the country yesterday.
Franklin Bet, a special assistant to Moi, offers a different warning: "Consider the other side of the coin: Moi loses - civil war."
The Kalenjin, a cluster of minority tribes to which Moi belongs, "are not prepared to take abuses any more," says Mr. Bet, also a Kalenjin. "Let nobody play around with them."
Tribal clashes in the past year have pitted the minority Kalenjin against the more numerous Kikuyu, Luos, and Luhyas in various areas of Kenya, and often have followed provocative statements by local politicians. Economic expectations
There is another potential pitfall in the election: high public expectations that the presidential winner will pump new life into Kenya's strained economy.
George Okoth, who lives in the Mathare Valley slum here and earns less than $2 a day sweeping floors in a retail store, is one of those with high hopes for a better standard of living. "I want to earn more," he says. His salary now is "not enough" for even the basics, he says; a packet of flour, which lasts him only a couple of days, costs him half a day's wages.
Hopes for better living standards are so high, analysts warn, that the next president is unlikely to be able to satisfy them.
Bet, Moi's aide, candidly says that if the elections had been held before July, the president's party, the Kenya African National Union "would have lost heavily."
Since the summer, the main opposition party, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, split - first into two, then three wings. The split, plus the ethnic nature of the opposition parties, drained support, Bet says.
While it is true that each of the main opposition parties has their strongest electoral base within one tribe, they all have tried, out of necessity, to reach out to other tribes in order to build enough support for their presidential candidate to win the required minimum of 25 percent of the vote in five of Kenya's eight provinces. A new openness
Meanwhile, Kenyans seem to relish changes already achieved during the past year.
Before multiparty politics was accepted here last December, Kenyans habitually looked around them to see who might be listening before entering into a political conversation in public.
Many Kenyans say police intimidation of the public had instilled a culture of fear in Kenya.
"Police used to harass people without good reason," says Benjamin Muraguri, a newspaper vendor. "That has changed."
"I feel I'm free," one manual laborer says. "Before I could be arrested for nothing." (The individual's name has been withheld for his protection.)
International human rights groups, having documented political detention and torture, have been putting pressure on Moi since the mid-1980s. Western donors froze new aid to Kenya in November 1991, pending democratic reforms. Pro-democracy rallies in 1990 and 1991 were crushed by the government. The government publicly denies charges of human rights abuses.