Kenyans Line Up to Vote

Kenyans lined up to vote today in the closest presidential election in the country's history, despite a campaign marked by violence. President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga are the main contenders. For our weekly Anchor Buddies series, African Correspondent Mike Pflanz of The Daily Telegraph discusses the atmosphere in Nairobi.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

It's time for a visit with one of our anchor buddies, reporters who help us understand the latest news from around the world. Today, Kenya is holding its presidential and parliamentary elections, considered the closest in the country's history. Incumbent President Mwai Kibaki is seeking reelection.

But the race is hotly contested by opposition leader Raila Odinga. His successful fight against endemic corruption has been the number one issue for both contenders as President Kibaki has been criticized for his inability to stamp out graft. But the campaign has also been marked by the violence with more than a dozen killed and hundreds of people left without homes.

Joining us to talk about all this is Mike Pflanz, East Africa correspondent for The Daily Telegraph of Britain. He joins on the phone from his office in Nairobi. Welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MIKE PFLANZ (East African Correspondent, The Daily Telegraph): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Can you tell us what are the latest polls showing? Is there a winner yet or is it too early to call?

Mr. PFLANZ: It's too early to call just yet, Michel. The voting opened this morning at about 6 o'clock, Kenya time; we're expecting that to go on until 5 p.m. this afternoon. The count will then happen overnight. We should get a result sometime during tomorrow. And the queues have been stretching back a kilometer or two from the polling stations. And people very keen obviously to get out and make their vote known. There have been a few problems. I witnessed in a couple of polling stations in Nairobi that people were waiting for - to find their names on registration lists that weren't there or the registration lists were in the wrong place, so that's obviously caused a little bit of anger. But largely, by and large, everything opened on time and things seem to be going smoothly.

MARTIN: There have been reports of violence, there have been reports of - there have been sort of skirmishes coming throughout sort of the campaign season, and there's also been sort of allegations of vote rigging. What's motivating all of this? Is this just typical of elections there? Is it normally this kind of level or is it just - is it a reflection of the intensity of interest in the campaign?

Mr. PFLANZ: I think it's exactly that, Michel. It's such a close call this time, the closest ever election in Kenya's history, as you said. And I think because both of the leading candidates, Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent, and Raila Odinga, the main challenger, are obviously so keen to get the post. I wouldn't say that there's any more. In fact, it may even be less than we've seen in previous campaigns. Certainly in terms of the number of people who have been injured or killed, it's much lower than before. And - but we have seen the intensity of the campaign, as you say, driving people to carry out wherever there would be, for example, a large rally for Mr. Mbeki Odinga supporters may be nearby shouting, taunting, and so on and so forth--a lot of fervor and a lot of emotion that we're seeing today and in the run-up to the election.

MARTIN: Is ethnic difference a part of what's going on or do you think it's mainly part as in a political and attached to the two campaigns?

Mr. PFLANZ: I think speaking to people here, this is probably going to be Kenya's last election, which is largely driven by ethnic politics. We have two leading tribes here, the Kikuyu - Mr. Kibaki is a Kikuyu and they have, since independence from Britain in 1963, largely run Kenya's economy. Mr. Odinga is a Luo from the Luo tribe, the second largest in Kenya. And they have long felt marginalized from positions of power. Very often, key civil service posts in the government, they're given to Kikuyus not Luos, et cetera. This kind of thing has very much marked Kenya's politics for the last 40 years.

But I do think that Mr. Odinga, if he were to win, would win with votes from across Kenya's 40-odd ethnic groups, not just from the Luos. I think we're seeing a new generation of MPs and a new maturity. But I think you were fair to say that, yes, at the moment, it's still largely driven by tribal and ethnic differences.

MARTIN: I mentioned that corruption is a major issue in the campaign. Why is corruption such an important issue and why is it that Mr. Kibaki doesn't seem to have been able to put his hands around it. And finally, do they have concrete proposals to do that?

Mr. PFLANZ: If we look at the reign of Daniel Arap Moi, the president who lost - I'm sorry - who stood down in 2002 during the last election, his government is accused of siphoning off billions and billions, if not more, of dollars from the Kenyan economy. Now, this is money that should've been there to build roads, to fund health, and to employ teachers - the simple things to improve the economy and the life of Kenyans.

Mwai Kibaki came in, in 2002 promising that that kind of state corruption would be stamped out, that there would be no impunities to people who carried out such graft and that he would prosecute. Now, very little of that has happened in the intervening five years. Certainly the number of bribes given to policemen at roadblocks and so on, they're still there, but they're not as bad. You don't need to pay as much to get a phone line connected or to get a copy of the title to your land that you own in Kenya--this kind of level of corruption has dropped off. But at the very highest level, there have been substantial allegations of corruption against Mr. Kibaki and those close to him. And I think that is what Kenyans are most angered about. They really felt Mr. Kibaki would have stamped this out as he promised and that they would now be voting in 2007 on another substantive issue. Rather Odinga has said that he will be - very similar things to what Mr. Kibaki was saying sometime ago, you know, that he will stamp it out, there will be prosecutions, no impunity. But yes, as you say, there isn't really - there aren't really concrete proposals to do anything different from that which we've already seen.

So it's difficult, I think, if you're standing in the ballot box, standing in the polling station with your thumb about to mark your ballot paper, whether that's going to make keep a decision for you, you know, one guy is anti-corruption, the other guy isn't. I'm not sure if there is enough clear water between them in people's minds to make a decision on that issue.

MARTIN: We noted that Kenyans are voting for members of parliament today for the first time in the history of a country. There are large number of women running, but there have also been some reports of just really serious harassment being directed at some of these candidates. I mean, one candidate was raped, as I understand it. There have been reports such as - attempts to physically intimidate them. Why is that given that there are a lot of women taking leadership positions throughout the continent of Africa - Tansania, Rwanda, Uganda, there's certainly a - is a female head of state in Liberia, of course? Why is this? Is this cultural or is there something else at work here?

Mr. PFLANZ: I think it's a very ugly side of politics in Kenya. I don't think it's culturally specific to Kenya. What we are seeing, as you say, in this election is a large number of candidates - new candidates - first time MPs who are contesting seats which are currently held by those who have probably been there for some time.

If you are a long-running MP and your seat is being challenged by a woman who looks like she may have a lot of support, it's unfortunately easier to try and cow her than it may be to do so for a man. I don't know that there's anything else behind it, Michel, to be honest. And I think it's simply a sort of fear amongst the old guard that there are large number of, you know, MPs trying to come up, who have a good chance and that doesn't excuse it in any way of course. And I'm sure there'll be investigations after the elections into what happened.

MARTIN: And we've focused a lot on some of those sort of the difficulties of this election season, but you did mention at the beginning that there is a lot of interested voting, lots of long lines to vote. Is there a sense of optimism today? Is there any sense of sort of celebration hope? Or is it mainly that people just want to get this over with to get the - get on with things?

Mr. PFLANZ: It's really impossible to explain how much more serious people in Kenya and across Africa are about exercising, you know, the democratic right to vote. As I say, I was out from about just before six this morning, I was speaking to people who were halfway down the kilometer-long line who had been there since three in the morning or four in the morning. There is a huge amount of enthusiasm for going through the motions of voting. And I think that's a sign of Kenya's maturing democracy. Bear in mind, we've had elections in '92, '97, 2002 and now 2007, and each of them has been, well, certainly the previous three has been better run than the ones before.

We obviously have to wait and see what allegations are made about this election. But I think, yes, optimism and hope and just a growing sense of what it means to have a vote. I think that's the atmosphere and the feeling that you gather from the crowd that I've been talking to today.

MARTIN: Mike Pflanz is the East Africa correspondent for The Daily Telegraph. He joined us on the phone from his office in Nairobi. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. PFLANZ: Thank you, Michel. You're welcome.

MARTIN: And happy holidays.

Mr. PFLANZ: Thanks very much.

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