Nairobi - Uhuru Kenyatta opened an early lead as Kenya continued the count on Tuesday in a presidential election that brought out millions of voters despite pockets of violence that killed at least 15 people.
Kenyans, who had waited patiently in long lines, hope the vote will restore the nation's image as one of Africa's most stable democracies after tribal blood-letting killed more than 1 200 people when the result of the 2007 vote was disputed.
Partial tallies from Monday's broadly peaceful voting gave an edge to Kenyatta, the 51-year-old deputy prime minister, over rival Prime Minister Raila Odinga, 68.
Kenyatta's lead, however, could still be overhauled with two-thirds of polling stations still to report. The election committee said counting might not be completed till Wednesday, delaying any official announcement till then or later.
“People want peace after what happened last time,” said Henry Owino, 29, a second-hand clothes seller who voted in Nairobi's Kibera slum where violence flared five years ago. “This time the people have decided they don't want to fight.”
But the real test will be whether the final result, when declared, is accepted or disputed and whether candidates or their backers turn to the street or court to raise challenges.
The United States and Western donors have watched the vote closely, concerned about the stability of a nation seen as a regional ally in the fight against militant Islam. They also worry about what to do if Kenyatta wins, because he faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) related to the violence five years ago.
Kenyatta's lead of 54 percent of votes counted to Odinga's 41 percent could be eroded with just 3.8 million tallied by 8.50am (05.50GMT), provisional figures released by the election commission showed.
Election officials said turnout was more than 70 percent, suggesting some 10 million or more votes need to be counted in the nation of 14.3 million eligible voters. Officials did not give a precise total for votes cast.
For outright victory, a candidate needs more than 50 percent of votes cast, otherwise the top two face a run-off, tentatively set for April depending on any legal challenges. Odinga and Kenyatta ran neck-and-neck in pre-election polls.
“If elected, we will be able to discharge our duties,” Kenyatta's running mate, William Ruto, who also faces ICC charges of crimes against humanity, said during the vote. “We shall cooperate with the court with a final intention of clearing our names.”
After most polls closed, Ruto said the vote had been “free, fair and credible,” and welcomed the early lead by Kenyatta.
The party of Odinga, who had raised questions about preparations for the vote before Monday but still said he would win, issued comments suggesting they might challenge the result.
Frank Bett of Odinga's CORD alliance cited late voting at one polling station hours after the formal close, voters casting ballots more than once in some areas and a failure of electronic voter registration systems in places. “These we find to be placing in jeopardy the credibility of this process,” he said.
The election commission earlier acknowledged a polling clerk had been caught issuing extra ballots and said manual voter lists were used where the electronic registration system failed. But it has said there were no significant problems in voting.
Raising the stakes in the race, Odinga could be facing his last crack at the presidency after narrowly missing out in 2007 to now-outgoing President Mwai Kibaki, who has served a maximum of two five-year terms.
Losing to Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's first president after independence in 1963, would mark another defeat in his family's ambitions after Odinga's father also missed out on the top post.
Kenyans said memories of the post-2007 bloodshed and its dire impact on the economy were enough to prevent a repeat this time. Kenya's African neighbours, whose economies felt the shockwaves, have been watching intently.
At least 15 people were killed in two attacks by machete-wielding gangs on the restive coast hours before voting started. Police officers blamed them on a separatist movement, the Mombasa Republic Council (MRC), suggesting different motives to the ethnic killings after the 2007 vote. MRC denied any role.
The European Union observer mission said turnout was high even at the coast where the attacks took place.
A suspected grenade attack struck near an election centre in the eastern town of Garissa close to the border with Somalia, where Kenyan troops have been deployed to fight Islamist militants. That attack caused panic among voters but no injuries, a government official said.
Two civilians were shot dead in Garissa on Sunday, while a bomb blast in the Mandera area near the border wounded four.
To try to prevent a repeat of the contested outcome that sparked the violence after the December 2007 vote, a new, broadly respected election commission is using more technology to prevent fraud, speed up counting and increase transparency.
Alongside the presidential race, there were elections for senators, county governors, members of parliament, women representatives in county assemblies and civic leaders. - Reuters