Kenya candidates make final bid for votes as campaigning closes

Deputy President William Ruto and Raila Odinga, a veteran opposition leader now backed by the ruling party, are fighting for the chance to lead the East African powerhouse as it grapples with a cost-of-living crisis.

Candidate Raila Odinga speaks on stage at the launch of the party manifesto in Nairobi ahead of this year's August elections, on 6 June 2022. Picture: Simon MAINA/AFP

NAIROBI - The frontrunners for Kenya's presidential election were set to make their final push for votes Saturday, capping months of frenetic campaigning ahead of the August 9 polls.

Deputy President William Ruto and Raila Odinga, a veteran opposition leader now backed by the ruling party, are fighting for the chance to lead the East African powerhouse as it grapples with a cost-of-living crisis.

Previous polls have been marred by violence and continue to cast a dark shadow over the country, where 22.1 million voters will now choose the next president as well as senators, governors, lawmakers, woman representatives and some 1,500 county officials.

The battle for votes has been dominated by mud-slinging, tit-for-tat claims of rigging and a freebie bonanza for supporters, who have been showered with umbrellas, groceries and cash for attending rallies.

After criss-crossing the vast country in recent months, the leading candidates will stage their final campaigns in the capital Nairobi, with 55-year-old Ruto speaking at the 30,000-seat Nyayo National Stadium and Odinga, 77, addressing a rally at Kasarani Stadium, which seats 60,000.

The bitterly fought race has sparked speculation Kenya may see its first presidential run-off, with many worried that a challenge to the result could lead to street violence.

The two candidates had initially announced plans to speak at the Nyayo venue on Saturday, fuelling fears of a pre-election day showdown.

NEW CHAPTER

A wealthy businessman with a rags-to-riches background and a shadowy reputation, Ruto was long expected to be President Uhuru Kenyatta's successor, but lost ground when his boss - who cannot run again - joined hands with longtime rival Odinga in 2018.

Ruto has since cast himself as "hustler-in-chief", taking aim at the "dynasties" running Kenya - a reference to the Kenyatta and Odinga families, who gave the country its first president and vice-president.

He has promised to establish a "bottom-up" economy in a nation where three in 10 people live on less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank.

Odinga meanwhile has made the fight against corruption a key plank of his campaign, pointing out that Ruto's running mate is fighting a graft case.

The election will open a new chapter in Kenya's history, with neither candidate belonging to the dominant Kikuyu tribe, which has produced three of the country's four presidents.

Analysts say the economic crisis will likely compete with tribal allegiances as a key factor driving voter behaviour.

With large ethnic voting blocs, Kenya has long suffered politically motivated communal violence around election time, notably after a 2007 poll when more than 1,100 people died, scarring the nation's psyche.

The run-up to this year's poll has been largely calm, with the police planning to deploy 150,000 officers on election day to ensure security and the international community calling for a peaceful vote.