The frontrunners for Kenya’s presidential election were set to make their final push for votes Saturday, capping months of frenetic campaigning ahead of the August 9 polls.
Deputy President William Ruto and Raila Odinga, a veteran opposition leader now backed by the ruling party, are fighting for the chance to lead the East African powerhouse as it grapples with a cost-of-living crisis.
Previous polls have been marred by violence and continue to cast a dark shadow over the country, where 22.1 million voters will now choose the next president as well as senators, governors, lawmakers, woman representatives and some 1,500 county officials.
The battle for votes has been dominated by mud-slinging, tit-for-tat claims of rigging and a freebie bonanza for supporters, who have been showered with umbrellas, groceries and cash for attending rallies.
After criss-crossing the vast country in recent months, the leading candidates will stage their final campaigns in the capital Nairobi under tight security, with Ruto speaking at the 30,000-seat Nyayo National Stadium and Odinga addressing a rally at Kasarani Stadium, which seats 60,000.
The two candidates had initially announced plans to speak at the Nyayo venue on Saturday afternoon, fuelling fears of a pre-election day showdown.
Lawyers David Mwaure and George Wajackoyah — an eccentric former spy who wants to legalise marijuana — are also in the fray.
The bitterly fought race has sparked speculation Kenya may see its first presidential run-off, with many worried that a challenge to the result could lead to street violence.
A wealthy businessman with a rags-to-riches background and a shadowy reputation, Ruto, 55, was long expected to be President Uhuru Kenyatta’s successor, but lost ground when his boss — who cannot run again — joined hands with longtime rival Odinga in 2018.
Kenyatta’s endorsement has given Odinga, 77, access to the ruling Jubilee party’s powerful election machinery, but has also dealt a blow to the former political prisoner’s anti-establishment credentials.
Nevertheless, some analysts believe that Odinga will emerge the winner in a close race, with Oxford Economics highlighting the fact that he has the backing of “several influential political leaders” including Kenyatta.
Ruto has cast himself as “hustler-in-chief”, taking aim at the “dynasties” running Kenya — a reference to the Kenyatta and Odinga families, who gave the country its first president and vice-president.
He has promised to establish a “bottom-up” economy in a nation where three in 10 people live on less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank.
Odinga meanwhile has made the fight against corruption a key plank of his campaign, pointing out that Ruto’s running mate is fighting a graft case.
Evance Odawo, a 23-year-old tailor attending Odinga’s rally, told AFP: “We expect from the next president that the economy improves and the living standards too… we need jobs.”
The election will open a new chapter in Kenya’s history, with neither candidate belonging to the dominant Kikuyu tribe, which has produced three of the country’s four presidents.
Both men have sought to appeal to the Kikuyu, who account for roughly six million votes, but analysts say the economic crisis will likely compete with tribal allegiances as a key factor driving voter behaviour.
With large ethnic voting blocs, Kenya has long suffered politically motivated communal violence around election time, notably after a disputed poll in 2007 when more than 1,100 people died, scarring the nation’s psyche.
The run-up to this year’s poll has been largely calm, with the police planning to deploy 150,000 officers on election day to ensure security and the international community calling for a peaceful vote.
Since 2002, every Kenyan presidential poll has been followed with a dispute over results. The Supreme Court annulled the 2017 election due to widespread irregularities in the counting process and mismanagement by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.
The IEBC, which is under pressure to ensure a free and fair poll, insists that it has taken all necessary precautions to prevent fraud.