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Kenyan Election Highlights Political Freedom


On December 27, Kenyans will vote in their second presidential election since Daniel Arap Moi left office five years ago. Although the election is expected to be hotly contested, one thing that voters seem to agree on is that the pervasive fear of the Moi era is long gone. Nick Wadhams reports from Nairobi.

In the city's Uhuru Park, Nairobi denizens listen to handheld radios, lounge in the grass and take each other's pictures beside a giant sculpture of Mount Kenya.

Atop the sculpture is a giant hand clutching a torch. The hand is supposed to be that of former President Daniel Arap Moi, who grew into a quintessential African "big man" during his 24-year rule. He is alleged to have crushed dissent and jailed and tortured his opponents just 100 meters from here, in the basement of a rust-orange skyscraper.

Back then, Uhuru Park was a place where women were raped and kidnapped, and anyone walking through was harassed and threatened by street children. Across Kenya, people who spoke out against the Moi government risked jail, torture, and even death.

But, these days, in advance of the December 27 elections, the relaxed scene at Uhuru Park is a reminder of just how much Kenya has changed in the five years since Mr. Moi left office.

Sitting in the park with friends, teacher Elizabeth Nderitu has no qualms discussing her political views. She says these relatively new freedoms are one reason why she will support President Mwai Kibaki, Mr. Moi's successor, for a second five-year term.

"It used to be very difficult and people even ended up being killed," she said. "And, what I like about Kibaki, nobody can pinpoint and say Kibaki has made this person to be killed, like the way you used to hear. Okay, we do not know if it is true, but we used to hear this person has been killed because he said this, he commented this, he questioned the government. But in Kibaki government we have not had such cases."

It is a stunning turnaround that Kenya has gone from dictatorship to stable democracy within just five years. There is now a vibrant media and a political opposition unafraid to question Mr. Kibaki.

Given the tension surrounding the election, the strength of Kenya's political system will be tested. Recent polls show President Kibaki is slightly trailing his chief opponent, Raila Odinga.

A recent report from the Coalition for Accountable Political Financing asserted Mr. Kibaki, Mr. Odinga, and another candidate, Kalonzo Musyoka, funded nearly two-thirds of their campaigns through corrupt means, including extortion.

All sides have accused opponents of planning to rig the vote. Some people fear violence will result among supporters of losing candidates.

Mr. Kibaki has failed to stamp out the pervasive corruption of Mr. Moi's era as he had promised. Some opponents accuse him of perpetuating it by handing out favors to members of his Kikuyu tribe.

To some observers, evidence that flaws still dog Kenya's political system is the fact that one of Mr. Kibaki's most ardent supporters in this election is Mr. Moi.

Mr. Moi, 83, appears to be in vigorous health and has campaigned tirelessly for President Kibaki, in stops around the nation. He has been appointed Mr. Kibaki's special envoy for the peace process between North and South Sudan.

"I am convinced that President Mwai Kibaki ought to be given a chance to complete the constitutionally accepted two-term tenure," he said.

Yet the clearest example that Mr. Moi has left the picture, and of the changes initiated by Mr. Kibaki, appears to be the general consensus that the election rigging the Moi administration was accused of using to assure it stayed in power for so many years would no longer work.

Mwalimu Mati is an anti-corruption campaigner.

"We still have a problem of corruption in the electoral process, but the test will be the results," he explained. "It is not clear whether it is as effective as it once was, because there was a time when you used to buy elections outright. But now it seems to be a bit more difficult. Kenya is democratizing so it is harder and harder to guarantee the cooperation of all the people you would need to rig elections the way Moi, for example, was able to pull it off."

Back at Uhuru Park, the monument with Mr. Moi's hand atop it vigorously sprays water into a surrounding pool. Tourists happily snap pictures. But few people seem to know this monument is anything more than a slightly strange sculpture in a pretty park. Whatever Kenya's problems and whatever the outcome of the vote, the time of the Moi era seems long past.