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Kenyan Parties Merge Ahead of Presidential Elections - 2002-03-18

After months of speculation that it would happen, the ruling political party in Kenya merged with a former rival party. This greatly strengthens the ruling party's chances in elections later this year.

Some 6,000 delegates cheered as President Daniel arap Moi's Kenya African National Union party, KANU, merged with National Development Party at a joint national conference in Nairobi.

The NDP was the second-largest opposition party and was particularly popular with one of the four largest tribes in the country, the Luos of western Kenya.

The merger dramatically increases the ruling party's chances of winning general elections, due before the end of the year. In the elections, Kenyans will choose a new president, their third since independence.

President Moi, who has ruled Kenya since 1978, is constitutionally obliged to step down, but he has not yet named a successor.

There had been intense debate over the allocation of party posts, because it is viewed as a key indicator of President Moi's likely choice. During the past few weeks, a dozen senior politicians announced their intention to stand for the four newly created party vice-chairman posts.

At the party conference, long-standing vice president and heir apparent George Saitoti dramatically announced that he was withdrawing his name from the race. Analysts are saying this signals the end of his political career.

But while Mr. Saitoti's career may be ending, four of Kenya's so-called Young Turks are on the rise. The conference elected Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi, Ronald Ngala, and Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's founding president Jomo Kenyatta as vice chairmen of KANU. The leader of the NDP, Raila Odinga, was elected unopposed as KANU's secretary general. These five men are now KANU's leading presidential contenders.

Speaking after the party elections, President Moi reiterated his intention to hand over power to the younger generation. "I have said and I will say again now that I would like to see younger people take over the running of affairs in this country," he asserted. "As you all know, Kenya is a young nation. Over 81 percent of our population - that is over 24 million Kenyans - are under 35 years of age. Whereas only 19 percent of the population is over 35 years old."

Government critics and the media have dismissed the delegates' conference as undemocratic because it was not by secret ballot. Instead, candidates were chosen by acclamation, which led to some odd results.

One choice, Kipgeny arap Ng'eny as the party's deputy treasurer, was resoundingly booed. The minister has been taken to court for the alleged theft of millions of shillings as head of the state-owned Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation in the early 1990s.

The angry crowd called out for someone else to be nominated, but President Moi merely told the delegates that complaints should be forwarded to party officials who are presiding over the elections.