Kenyans turned up in large numbers Thursday to vote for a new president in this year’s general elections, billed as the greatest test of the country’s rapidly maturing democracy.
Long queues stretching hundreds of metres could be seen at designated polling stations in Nairobi and its environs.
Most of the voters were calm but some panicked as morning drizzles threatened to displace some from the long queues.
In Othaya, Nyeri, where incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was expected to vote at 10.00 East Africa time, voting started at the stipulated time of 6 am (0300GMT), but voting was delayed for hours in several locations in Nairobi.
“I came here early and I have already voted,” said 66-year-old Francis Ngatia, after casting his ballot for the incumbent, largely expected to sweep the central Kenya vote.
In Nairobi, several voting stations experienced widespread delays, but no explanation was provided for the slow start.
The elections came five years after Kenyans elected Kibaki as President.
In this year’s elections, there are three main presidential contenders, including the incumbent President, who are battling to become the East African country’s leader for another term of five years.
The presidential contest is billed as the tightest race for the presidency since Kenya’s independence from British rule
44 years ago.
It pits Kibaki against his former Foreign Minister, Kalonzo Musyoka, and his erstwhile Roads Minister Raila Odinga.
There are five fringe candidates accompanying the three main presidential contenders in main battle for the 14.2 million presidential votes, but the war has narrowed down to a battle between Kibaki and the main opposition candidate, Odinga.
Odinga is running on an Orange Democratic Movement Party (ODM) ticket and hopes to mount a strong challenge against President Kibaki.
He faces an uphill task dislodging Kibaki, who has won support among many of Kenya’s 36 million people for introducing free primary school education and reviving a stagnant economy.
Both Odinga and Kibaki have spared no efforts, spending unprecedented amounts of money on TV, billboard, email and mobile phone campaigns, and crisscrossing the country in convoys and helicopters to gather more political support.
The three main presidential candidates are former political allies who fell out after bitter political squabbles over power sharing.
According to a pre-election pact signed before the 2002 elections, Odinga was supposed to occupy a yet-to-be created post of Prime Minister while Musyoka was promised the post of deputy premier in a Kibaki government.
Musyoka, 53, is currently the third-ranking candidate in the presidential race.
In his campaigns, Musyoka has stressed his evangelical Christianity.
He trails the leading candidates in the polls, but he could influence the elections in many ways.
Musyoka considers himself and his party, ODM-Kenya– a splinter faction of Odinga’s ODM faction– the best bet for a post-election coalition for either of the two main candidates.
This year’s general elections have been characterized by claims of pre-election rigging, electoral violence, which has claimed at least 70 people and tribal clashes.
The Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) said Wednesday evening poll plans had been completed and everything was expected to run smoothly during the voting period.