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Commonwealth Observers Arrive Ahead of Kenyan Elections

An observation mission from the Commonwealth group of nations has arrived in Kenya before presidential and parliamentary elections on December 27. Derek Kilner reports from Nairobi, where the head of the team, discussed the observer mission.

Former Sierra Leone president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah said the 13-member group will conduct meetings in the capital before fanning out to provinces before the vote.

"We will meet representatives of political parties, civil society, commonwealth diplomats, and media, as well representatives of other international observer groups in order to consider the broadest range of perspectives and concerns," he said.

Electoral violence has been a growing concern. Party primaries for legislative races in November were marked by a series of violent protests, and ethnic clashes have flared up in the Rift Valley and Mt. Elgon regions of the country in recent months.

Mr. Kabbah said he was aware of such incidents, but expressed optimism that the vote would proceed smoothly.

"We have read and heard about this type of violence. But we are reassured that as we get nearer to the day itself that people will see to it that it is better to organize a free, fair, and friendly election," he said.

The European Commission and the East African Community have also sent observation teams for the elections. The vote is expected to be the closest in Kenya since multi-party politics was introduced in 1992.

Two new opinion polls show President Kibaki trailing Raila Odinga by four and eight percentage points respectively. The most recent poll by the Steadman group, the country's most prominent pollster, puts Odinga's lead at two points. For many observers, the race is too close to call.

Mr. Kibaki has presided over a strong record of economic growth - more than five percent of GDP last year. But Mr. Odinga claims the benefits have been concentrated among Mr. Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe, Kenya's largest. Mr. Odinga also says President Kibaki has failed to deliver on a 2002 pledge to combat corruption.

Voting is likely to largely follow tribal lines. President Kibaki has strong support from the Kikuyu in Central Province. Mr. Odinga's base is the Luo community in the poorer Nyanza Province in western Kenya. He has also rallied support from other groups who have felt left out by the Kibaki government.

Mr. Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement party also holds a roughly eight-point lead over Mr. Kibaki's Party of National Unity in legislative polls.