By Maggie Fick
KISUMU, Kenya (Reuters) – Kenyans who boycotted a repeat presidential election voiced relief on Saturday after authorities indefinitely delayed further attempts to hold the vote in some opposition areas due to the risk of violence.
But while the election board’s decision stemmed the prospect of more clashes, it also pushed to the fore a new question: can President Uhuru Kenyatta be declared winner of a vote in which ballots were not cast in more than 20 of Kenya’s 290 constituencies?
Two days after polling in the rest of the country, voting had been due to take place in four counties where residents blocked roads and clashed with police as part of an opposition boycott. The board ditched the plan late on Friday.
“I’m happy because we need peace, we are tired of being brutally killed by the police,” said Henry Kahango, a father of three, in the western city of Kisumu.
Police officials have said repeatedly that their response to the political unrest is proportionate.
Kenyatta has won more than 97 percent of votes counted so far, according to a local media tally. But with turnout estimated below 35 percent and the country deeply divided, his hopes for a decisive mandate to lead east Africa’s richest economy have been quashed.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga pulled out of the contest, a rerun called after August’s election was annulled by the Supreme Court over procedural irregularities. He said the contest against Kenyatta was not going to be fair.
Odinga won 44.7 percent of the vote then, on a turnout of nearly 80 percent. In Thursday’s vote, Kenyatta faced six minor candidates, none of whom won more than 1 percent in August.
Deputy president William Ruto, Kenyatta’s running mate sought on Saturday to declare victory and discount the opposition: “Evidently it doesn’t matter how powerful/popular one or their party imagines to be, the repeat elections confirm the PEOPLE ARE SUPREME,” he tweeted.
The first legal challenge came less than 24 hours after Thursday’s vote, when an activist filed a case seeking to nullify the election, which the opposition rejected as a “sham”.
Neither of the two main parties, nor the election board had any appearances scheduled on Saturday, leaving the country waiting for the next step as the votes are counted.
If the expected legal challenges fail to clear a path out of the crisis, including a possible order for another rerun, the result will be the continuation of a protracted and economically damaging stalemate between the Kenyatta and Odinga camps.
The electoral saga is polarising the nation and slowing growth in what has been one of Africa’s most vibrant economies, as well as a regional trade hub and a powerful security ally for Western nations. A decade ago, 1,200 Kenyans were killed in violence after a disputed poll.
In Odinga strongholds, such as Kisumu, residents had defiantly blocked roads, clashed with police, and intimidated election officials to prevent voting on Thursday.
They accused authorities of trying to “force” participation.
“This is pure oppression,” said Hassan Hussein, a Muslim community leader. “The law says if you want to vote, you vote, if not, you don’t.”
In a statement on Saturday, the IEBC election board condemned what it said was harassment by a member of parliament on “an IEBC official performing his duties” after a video went viral on social media, further stirring anger online.
The MP, Alice Wahome, who is a member of the ruling Jubilee party’s coalition, told Kenya’s Standard newspaper the returning officer had refused to sign off the necessary paperwork and was seeking to leave, having “snatched the forms from other agents”.
Anger at police is flaring in opposition areas in western counties, Nairobi slums and the coastal city of Mombasa.
“People from this region are feeling isolated from the rest of the country,” said Eric Chitayi, a security guard in Kisumu. “We are feeling disconnected.”
Pastor Fred Olando from Kisumu, describing how water cannon trucks and anti-riot police had been patrolling day and night in his neighbourhood: “We fear this government and these police.”
Violence has killed at least five people since Thursday’s vote. People died from gunshot wounds and beatings by police, according to hospital staff.
In the aftermath of the August election, at least 45 people died during a police crackdown on opposition supporters, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
On Friday evening in the Nairobi slum of Kawangware, a Reuters witness saw nearly 100 youths armed with machetes in red T-shirts – the colour of the ruling party – as a group of opposition supporters clashed with police.
In the western town of Migori, another scene of clashes, a local journalist said police assaulted him on Saturday morning. “They removed me from my home, I produced my press card, and they slapped me and beat me with a baton,” said Caleb Kingwara, a photographer for Kenya’s Standard newspaper.
The European Union said in a statement: “It is imperative that the security forces provide protection to all citizens and avoid the excessive use of force.”
(Reporting by Maggie Fick; Additional reporting by George Obulutsa in Nairobi; Editing by Alison Williams)