Nairobi - Kenyan authorities hope to deliver the final outcome of a presidential vote on Wednesday, after partial results gave a lead to a politician wanted in The Hague over tribal violence after the last election over five years ago.
Counting since Monday's vote has been slow, and a new electronic system has been plagued by hitches, leading to complaints by political parties and anxiety among voters fearful that a flawed process could lead to another violent dispute.
Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, 51, has kept an early lead since results started trickling in after polls closed on Monday, but some strongholds for his rival Prime Minister Raila Odinga, 68, have yet to declare their results.
The last election saw about 1 200 people killed in ethnic violence after outgoing president Mwai Kibaki was declared the victor over Odinga amid charges of voting fraud. This time, Monday's vote saw at least 15 people killed in pockets of violence but no repeat so far of unrest on such a large scale.
But the biggest test of whether calm prevails will be whether the candidates and their supporters accept the outcome. The stakes are high for both candidates and a dispute over the fate of a sizable number of rejected ballots could rein in Kenyatta's early lead and raise the chances of an April runoff.
The election commission has said it hopes to tally all the results on Wednesday, but has seven days from Monday's vote to declare the official outcome.
“We are afraid because we don't know what's going to happen next,” said Charles Kabibi, 27, a gardener in the port city of Mombasa, whose concerns have risen with the wait. “It makes us nervous and it's just adding to the tension.”
Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, are both wanted in The Hague on charges of unleashing death squads after the last vote in 2007. Both men deny the charges.
The United States and other Western states, big donors that view Kenya as vital in the regional battle with militant Islam, have already indicated that a victory by Kenyatta would complicate diplomatic relations.
Provisional results displayed by the election commission on Wednesday with just under 60 percent of polling stations still to report showed Kenyatta, son of Kenya's independence leader and one of Africa's richest men, leading with 53 percent, against 42 percent for veteran politician Odinga.
But the numbers ignore more than 330 000 rejected votes counted so far, which the election commission says will now be included. Once factored in, Kenyatta's chances of securing more than 50 percent in the first round give him an outright win would be sharply eroded.
“We want to believe that this is not an attempt to deny the Jubilee Coalition a first-round victory as is clearly now on the wall,” Ruto told reporters, referring to a results screen. “We urge every Kenyan to be calm and very patient and await the official release of these results by the commission.”
He also suggested foreigners might have prompted the commission's change of heart, adding: “We are very concerned at the level of involvement of ambassadors and foreigners in canvassing for various positions around this hall.”
Odinga's camp has also questioned parts of the election process before, during and after the vote, hinting at the potential for legal challenges.
After problems with the electronic system, the electoral commission said it would rely instead on results being delivered manually to a national tallying centre overnight.
“We can confirm that our returning officers are expected to bring the physical results at anytime now, which will lead to the final results. What matters here is the final result and they are coming in,” Ahmed Issack Hassan, chairman of the election commission, said late on Tuesday.
Despite the glitches, he said the vote would be fair and credible. “We therefore continue to appeal for patience from the public,” he said earlier in the day. “Nobody should celebrate, nobody should complain.”
To try to prevent a repeat of the contested outcome that sparked the violence after the December 2007 vote, the new, broadly respected election commission is using more technology to prevent fraud, speed up counting and increase transparency. But the new system has come up short of expectations.
Kenyans, who waited patiently in long lines, hope the vote will restore the nation's image as one of Africa's more stable democracies, damaged by the tribal blood-letting in 2007.
Election officials said turnout was more than 70 percent of the 14.3 million eligible voters.
Kenya is East Africa's biggest economy and, although led by authoritarian leaders accused of corruption for most of its half century of independence, has been spared the civil wars that devastated neighbours like Somalia, Sudan, Uganda and Rwanda.
It won support from the West for sending troops to Somalia to fight al-Shabaab Islamist militants. Highlighting the threat, an explosion struck a predominantly Somali neighbourhood in Nairobi late on Tuesday, injuring one person.
Investors initially applauded peaceful voting and signs the result could yield a clear winner, strengthening the shilling against the dollar. But as Tuesday wore on and nerves about the wait set in, the currency gave up its gains.
As in past elections in Kenya, much of the voting has been on ethnic lines, with Kenyatta enjoying strong support among his Kikuyu tribe, Kenya's largest, and Odinga backed by the Luo, the tribe which includes the family of US President Barack Obama.
In a country with a handful of large tribes and dozens of smaller ones, both candidates lead broader coalitions and are also relying on support from the tribes of their running mates.
All the candidates have pledged to accept the outcome, and ordinary Kenyans speak passionately about their determination not to allow a repeat of the violence five years ago.
Streets have been all but deserted with many businesses closed, including supermarkets and security personnel were beefed up countrywide in readiness for possible demonstrators.
“We are worried about violence and the businesses are not doing well,” said Francis Mwangi, 25, a technician in Mombasa. “People are not working because they're waiting for results so they can start once more.” - Reuters