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Kenya Vote in Balance as Crisis Deepens After Odinga Quits


Opposition Supporters demonstrate against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) in Nairobi, Kenya, Oct. 11, 2017.

Kenya lurched deeper into political confusion on Wednesday as a court ruling and a parliamentary vote appeared to ease Uhuru Kenyatta's path to a second term as president, a day after his chief rival quit an election they were to contest.

Kenyatta and Raila Odinga were due to face off in a repeat election on Oct. 26, after the Supreme Court annulled their August ballot - in which the president was declared the winner.

But Odinga pulled out of the re-run on Tuesday, fueling doubts about whether it would be contested at all. Wednesday's interventions by the judiciary and legislature added to the uncertainty.

As police used tear gas to disperse opposition protesters demanding electoral reform, the High Court approved a petition by Ekuru Aukot, who polled less than 1 percent in the August vote, to contest the second ballot.

The election board later issued a statement saying that all eight candidates who competed in August would be on the ballot.

It also said although Odinga had notified them of his withdrawal by letter, he had not yet submitted the official form to do so.

The developments suggested that the second election would go ahead, with Kenyatta the likely winner against a plethora of weaker candidates. No challenger except Odinga polled more than 1 percent.

Further muddying the political waters, parliament passed an election law amendment stating that if one candidate withdrew from the re-run vote, the remaining one would automatically win.

The vote was boycotted by opposition lawmakers.

The law aimed to ensure Kenyatta could be declared president if he faced no challengers.

The events stoked confusion among voters and fears that politically-driven violence might escalate. Months of political uncertainty have already blunted growth in East Africa's richest nation, a long-time ally of the West.

"There's a real atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty. There seems to be dozens of opinions of what should come next," said Murithi Mutiga, a senior Horn of Africa analyst for the global think tank International Crisis Group.

Unease

Justifying his pullout on Tuesday, Odinga said the election would not be free and fair and renewed calls for the electoral board (IEBC), which he blamed for the procedural irregularities identified in the first ballot, to be replaced.

Opposition supporters on Wednesday renewed their protests for electoral reform.

Demonstrators lit bonfires in Kisumu, an Odinga stronghold in the country's west, while more than a thousand supporters marched through the central business district in the capital Nairobi. Police used tear gas to disperse them in both cities, witnesses said.

Juliana Otieno, the chief executive of the Oginga Odinga Hospital in the city, said 17 people had been admitted with injuries suffered during the protests. A Reuters witness counted at least five of them with bullet wounds.

Kisumu's police commander, Titus Yoma, said he had no information on the bullet wounds and his officers were still quelling the protests, which were centered around two slums in the lakeside city.

At least 37 people were killed in protests immediately following the August vote, almost all of them by police, a Kenyan rights group said on Monday. Ethnic clashes killed 1,200 people following a disputed presidential poll in 2007.

"We want a reformed IEBC," said Elisha Odhiambo, an opposition legislator, referring to the electoral board, which has frequently relied on riot police dispersing protests outside its offices in recent weeks.

Mombasa Governor Ali Hassan Joho, a key opposition player, told protesters in Uhuru Park: "Our voices must be heard. We have no war with anyone but we will not allow anyone to stifle us."

After the High Court ruling in his favor, Aukot told reporters that he still had concerns about the board and would issue a statement in a day or two giving clarity about his plans.

It was unclear if other candidates from the first ballot with little support would also seek to be included, but the election board said it still had time to print ballot papers.

The Sept. 1 Supreme Court judgement that nullified Kenyatta's 1.4 million vote win also stipulated elections had to be held within 60 days.

If that schedule is not met, the constitution provides for the speaker of parliament, a member of Kenyatta's party, to take power.

With two weeks to go until the elections, it is still unclear who will stand.

"I would expect one of the parties will try to seek an authoritative announcement from the Supreme Court," International Crisis Group's Mutiga said.

Amid the political uncertainty, the government has trimmed this year's GDP growth forecast from 5.9 percent to 5.5 percent last month.

The country's equity markets slid further on Wednesday.

Kenya's all share index closed down 0.67 percent while the blue chip index fell 1.41 percent.

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