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Vote Counting Underway  in Kenya - 2002-12-27

Election day is over and the counting has begun in Kenya, after millions of people voted in crucial elections to choose a new president. Polling problems prevented many would-be voters from casting their ballots.

Well before the polls opened early Friday morning, analysts were already speculating that this year's election would mark a major turning point in Kenyan politics.

Latest opinion surveys show the leading opposition candidate, Mwai Kibaki, as the overwhelming favorite to replace President Daniel arap Moi. Mr. Moi is due to step down after 24 years in power. He is constitutionally barred from seeking another term.

If Mr. Kibaki wins, it would be the first opposition victory since Kenya introduced multi-party elections 10 years ago. It would also mean the end of Mr. Moi's ruling KANU party dominance, which has lasted for nearly four decades.

Analysts say Mr. Kibaki's support comes primarily from those who see a desperate need for change. In recent years, Kenya's economy has been in steep decline, largely because of widespread corruption and government mismanagement.

Mr. Kibaki's chief rival, KANU candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, said if Kenyans choose Mr. Kibaki as their next leader, his party will not contest it. "Whatever the people of Kenya decide, that will be the decision of us all, and we shall accept and abide by that," he said.

But opposition leaders say KANU has been trying to use dirty tricks to ensure election victory.

Midway through the day, tempers began flaring at several polling stations in Nairobi, after hundreds of would-be voters were turned away.

An angry man demanded to know why he could not vote."I am disappointed beyond talk," he said. "I am a voter from Dagoretti constituency. I voted in 1997 and now I cannot vote. This is really a disappointment of the year, in fact."

Election officials say the people could not vote because their names were not on the voter registration lists. Opposition members say that is because KANU officials tampered with the lists to keep opposition supporters from voting. They also accuse KANU of trying to buy votes.

This is not the first time KANU has been accused of cheating. Kenya's two previous multi-party elections, which Mr. Moi won, were declared flawed because of bribery and voting irregularities.

KANU says this time it is committed to allowing a free and fair election.

Some 40,000 election observers, including a large contingent from the European Union, have been trying to minimize the problems this time around. One improvement is the decision to count the ballots at each polling station rather than transporting them to a central location. This, the monitors say, will significantly reduce the chances for tampering.

But vote counting will apparently take some time. Election officials say Kenyans may have to wait until next week to find out who they have chosen to lead their country into the future.