Kenyan voters flocked to polling stations to elect a new president as police reinforcements were deployed in its Coast province after at least 14 people died in a series of separatist attacks.
The Mombasa Republican Council, which seeks autonomy for the coastal region and has called for a boycott of the vote, carried out at least three attacks last night that left eight policemen dead, Samuel Kilele, the provincial commissioner, said in a phone interview. Six of the group’s members died and four were arrested, according to Police Inspector-General David Kimaiyo. Police reinforcements were sent to the province “and all other hot-spot areas in our country,” Kimaiyo said.
Today’s election is the first since a disputed vote five years ago led to ethnic clashes in which about 1,100 died and more than 350,000 were displaced. Economic growth slowed to 1.5 percent in 2008 from 7 percent a year earlier, after farmers fled their fields and tourists stayed away.
The outcome of the election is being closely watched by foreign investors in a country that serves as the regional hub for companies including Google Inc., International Business Machines Corp., Visa Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp. (7203)
An increase in support for Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, 51, has put him in a dead heat with Premier Raila Odinga, 68, in a race that includes six other challengers, according to a Feb. 22 poll conducted by Ipsos-Synovate Kenya, the Nairobi-based research company. The first round may fail to produce an outright winner, which would mean Kenyatta and Odinga face off in a second round within 30 days.
Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto, a former Cabinet minister, are facing trial at the International Criminal Court. They, along with two other Kenyan suspects, are accused of crimes against humanity for orchestrating violence after the last ballot. The men, who were rivals in the 2007 vote, deny the allegations.
Voter turnout has exceeded the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s expectations and many of the country’s polling stations will remain open beyond the scheduled 5 p.m. close, Chief Executive Officer James Oswago said.
“Huge turn outs have been witnessed,” Oswago told reporters in the capital, Nairobi. “The voter turnout throughout the day has been very encouraging throughout the republic.”
Kenya’s NSE All Share index has gained 13 percent this year, adding to a 39 percent rise last year that ranked the gauge as sub-Saharan Africa’s best performer in local currency. Foreign investment represented 49 percent of all trading in Kenyan equities last year, compared with 10 percent in 2007, according to the Nairobi Securities Exchange.
The shilling posted its biggest weekly advance in 14 months last week, climbing 1.8 percent to 85.88 per dollar on March 1, its strongest level this year. It weakened less than 0.1 percent to 85.89 per dollar by 4:22 p.m. in Nairobi
“Investors seeking growth and profitability are attracted to Kenya since the country and companies in the country are growing at a good pace,” Mark Mobius, who oversees more than $50 billion as executive chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group, said in an e-mailed response to questions last month. “The election turmoil has not yet impacted the economy and is unlikely to do so unless widespread violence breaks out.”
Odinga is running for the presidency a third time, after unsuccessful campaigns in 1997 and 2007. His allegation that incumbent Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki stole the 2007 election triggered the violence. Odinga became prime minister as part of power-sharing deal with Kibaki to stop the unrest. Kibaki, 81, is retiring after he served the two-term limit.
The platforms of the top candidates show little difference in policy. Both men have promised to target spending on infrastructure and agricultural development to help boost the economy and create jobs. About 40 percent of Kenyans are unemployed. The rate is worse for youth; 70 percent don’t have work, according to the International Labour Organization.
Still, the $33.6 billion economy is expanding, driven by an emerging middle class and growth in banking and technology. Economic growth may reach as much as 6 percent this year from an estimated 5 percent in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The winner will also assume management of possible future oil and gas revenue. The discovery of Kenya’s first crude by Tullow Oil Plc (TLW) a year ago has accelerated exploration in the region and raises the chance of it becoming an oil producer.
To win the first round, a candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the votes cast and a quarter of support in the majority of Kenya’s 47 counties. Kenyatta polled 45 percent, while Odinga garnered 44 percent support in Ipsos-Synovate’s survey of 5,971 Kenyans between Feb. 15 and Feb. 19.
Kenya has taken steps over the past five years to prevent tensions from escalating at elections, overhauling the judiciary and enacting a constitution in 2010 designed to distribute power and resources more equitably.
“Hopes are high because we’ve seen a lot of changes to mechanisms such as the police and courts since 2007-08, which should help us avoid seeing the same kind of misery we did the last time,” Tom Ocholla, a professor of politics at the University of Nairobi, said by phone.
Violence has accompanied every election in Kenya since multiparty democracy in 1992, save for one in 2002. The clashes have affected the Rift Valley breadbasket where land disputes have been rife since before Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963. Kenya is the world’s largest black tea exporter and it supplies a third of the flowers sold in Europe.
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