Kenyan election hit by boycott, violence and death

Opposition protesters taunt riot police to come and get them, as they stand behind a burning barricade during clashes with police in the...

Opposition protesters taunt riot police to come and get them, as they stand behind a burning barricade during clashes with police in the Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017.


After an opposition boycott and sporadic violence that left many polling stations empty on voting day, Kenya must grapple with the aftermath of a disputed election that leaves the country badly divided, with a president whose expected victory will be tainted.

The boycott, enforced by thuggish tactics from some opposition supporters, persuaded Kenya's election commission to postpone the voting in four opposition strongholds in western Kenya, citing "security challenges." Those regions will vote again on Saturday.

At least one person was shot dead and many others injured in clashes between police and protesters throughout the day on Thursday. Millions of Kenyans voted, but millions stayed home, respecting the boycott or simply unable to vote because of opposition tactics.

President Uhuru Kenyatta is likely to be re-elected by a big majority, but the legitimacy of his mandate will be severely threatened by the low turnout, court challenges, violent attacks on election staff, threats against judges, the resignation of an election commissioner, and a heavy-handed police crackdown. The independence of Kenya's judiciary and electoral institutions is now under serious question, pushing it closer to the spectre of authoritarian rule.

Less than two months ago, Kenya had seemed on the brink of a democratic breakthrough. In an unprecedented move, its Supreme Court had nullified an August election, citing a range of illegalities and irregularities. It ordered a new election, and Kenya's election commission had promised a fairer vote. It was a dramatic advance for the freedom of courts and elections in one of Africa's biggest democracies.
But the situation soon plunged into a deepening crisis. Mr. Kenyatta denounced the Supreme Court judges as "crooks." 

The election commission's reforms were relatively minor, and opposition leader Raila Odinga announced a boycott of the new election. One of the seven members of the election commission fled the country, warning that the election would be a mockery because of widespread intimidation tactics. Even the commission's chairman admitted that a credible election would be difficult.

In one of the most shocking threats to the independence of the courts, unknown gunmen shot and wounded the bodyguard of Kenya's deputy chief justice on Tuesday. The following day, most of the Supreme Court judges failed to show up at a scheduled hearing on a petition to delay the election. It was an implicit admission that it was too risky for the judges to deal with the issue. Lacking a quorum, the court was unable to rule on the petition.

"We are deeply disappointed by the continuing efforts of both parties to interfere with and undermine the independent operation of the electoral commission, the judiciary and other essential institutions," said a statement on Wednesday by 15 ambassadors and other heads of mission from Europe and North America, including Canadian high commissioner Sara Hradecky.

They said they viewed the situation with "profound sadness." They called for dialogue immediately after the election to resolve the "deep divisions that the electoral process has exacerbated."

The European Union and the Carter Center, which were in Kenya to monitor the voting, announced that they would reduce their monitoring missions because of the election tensions. In some regions, the election commission was unable to train its staff because of threats and harassment. But the commission, under pressure from Mr. Kenyatta's forces, pushed ahead with the vote.

This set the stage for scenes of chaos and confusion on voting day on Thursday. Gangs of young men, supporting Mr. Odinga, blocked the entrances to some voting stations, throwing rocks or wielding clubs, while police fired tear gas to try to disperse them.

At one polling station, the opposition supporters welded the gate shut. At others, the ballot material was blocked, or the electoral agents did not show up, fearing for their safety.
Other stations were simply left empty as voters stayed away. At many stations, dozens of election officials sat idle for the whole day, waiting for voters who never came.

The tensions were worsened by ethnic differences between Mr. Kenyatta's supporters and Mr. Odinga's supporters, leaving another dangerous legacy from the election.

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