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Threat of Violence Hangs Over Kenya Election

As Kenya's December 27 elections approach, people across the country worry that candidates for parliament and president are exploiting ethnic divisions and using fear as a way to win more votes. Scores of people have already been killed and wounded in election violence, and many are anxious that the results may spark civil unrest. Nick Wadhams in Nairobi has this report for VOA.

In November, a Kenyan supermarket reported a run on machetes. Later that month, an assistant minister's car was found with dozens of weapons, including, swords, whips, and more machetes.

Those incidents as well as reports of violence across Kenya before the December 27 vote have led to a widespread unease that clashes could intensify, and then erupt into countrywide violence.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights says that at least 70 people have been killed in election violence and 2,000 have been displaced.

Violence unrelated to and stemming from election disputes has been so bad in two districts, Kuresoi and Mount Elgon, that the commission is trying to postpone the vote there.

The commission's principle human rights officer, Anthony Kuria, says candidates stir up their supporters to harass and intimidate the supporters of their opponents.

"The evidence are strong and it does point to some of the aspirants sponsoring the violence under the belief that it will help them in terms of disenfranchising communities which probably would not have voted for them and so the best way is to prevent them from exercising their right and therefore they get their supporters to vote and those who are perceived as opposing them do not get to vote," Kuria.

Kenya has seen election violence in the past, most notably in 1997, when political allies of President Daniel Arap Moi were accused of causing unrest to hobble their opponents.

This time, all sides have warned that their opponents are exploiting the tribal divisions that have marked this campaign. Members of Kenya's largest and dominant tribe, the Kikuyu, almost universally support President Mwai Kibaki. The Luo and other smaller tribes back Raila Odinga.

This election season is particularly tense because Mr. Odinga's lead over Mr. Kibaki in the polls has narrowed from 10 percentage points to just one.

There has also been a disturbing trend of violence against women. One woman who had planned to run for parliament was shot and killed, and others have been attacked.

Odinga supporter Jacqueline Oduor says police have not punished aggressors and women are afraid to vote.

"The women are going to be approaching election day with some sense of fear because there are those who have been found with weapons that demonstrate that they have intentions of engaging in violence and we have not really had them brought to book," she said. "I think they can only assume that those who want to perpetrate violence will have room to follow through with this on election day."

According to analysts, the person who has the best chance of preventing serious clashes violence is the chairman of Kenya's electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu. He is a highly respected figure unafraid to criticize both Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga.

Anti-corruption campaigner Mwalimu Mati says that people will listen if Kivuitu pronounces the election free and fair.

"The electoral commission is key. People will listen to what Kivuitu says. If Kivuitu says that the election was not free and fair I think we could have problems, civil disturbances because Kivuitu is a trust figure I think with the voters. His commission is not trusted though," said Mati. "So it is really up to Kivuitu. He will call whether it is free and fair or whether there are irregularities."

Teacher Ann Muraguri supports President Mwai Kibaki for a second term.

She says supporters of Mr. Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement already resorted to violence during the nomination process for members of parliament, and she fears they will do so again.

"It depends on whom to be elected. Like we suspect when ODM, that is Raila Odinga, when he is going to be elected, there will be violence," she said. "There is some speculation people will fight. Even last time, we saw, even in their nominations, they even fought, you see? So even if they can fight for MPs, how about the main ones?"

Mr. Odinga has repeatedly rejected violence and despite the allegations by Kibaki supporters, many people have confidence in the system.

Finance Ministry procurement officer John Mburu was asked for comment as he sat reading a newspaper in Uhuru Park.

"Now I have voted about four times, I have come to believe that even if there is a lot of talk about violence, Kenyans are mature people, whoever comes into power we are the same people, it is only that we are divided by politicians along the tribal lines," he said. "I do not think and I am not sure that there can be any violence in Kenya."

Many Kenyans say they not want to jeopardize the gains their country has made, including six percent economic growth and a reduction in crime. They fear violence could jeopardize the millions of dollars in foreign aid the country receives each year and cripple the tourism trade, one of Kenya's most powerful economic engines.