Kenya counts on technology to ensure fair, peaceful vote

NAIROBI Sun Mar 3, 2013 10:52am GMT

1 of 2. A man puts up a banner as a plane flies by in front of Kenya's national election centre in Nairobi March 3, 2013. Kenya will hold its presidential and parliamentary elections on March 4.

Credit: Reuters/Noor Khamis

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NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya has rolled out new technology in an attempt to ensure Monday's presidential election is transparent and proves the east African nation can rebuild its image after a disputed 2007 poll unleashed weeks of ethnic killing.

Independent monitors have routinely reported "ghost" voters, stuffed ballot boxes and other violations in Kenyan votes. But the 2007 race was the bloodiest with more than 1,200 people butchered in fighting between loyalists of rival candidates.

Kenya cannot afford a re-run of the mayhem that brought east Africa's largest economy to standstill and damaged trade routes to nearby states. Western donors worry about the stability of a regional ally in their fight against militant Islam.

This time, once votes are counted, the results from each polling station will be electronically transmitted to the central election commission, as well as being publicly displayed. The new system, similar to the one used in Ghana's smooth 2012 vote, aims to eliminate errors and prevent accusations of foul play.

Voting will still be on paper ballots, but voter identification will be electronic. Mobile devices at polling stations will not be able to send out any result where total votes exceed registered voters, a common fraud complaint before, the election commission said.

The two top contenders in the presidential poll, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta - who have joined the other candidates in calling for a peaceful vote - held final rallies in Nairobi on Saturday before thousands of chanting supporters in a final push before a campaign blackout on Sunday.

"We have put in a significant number of controls to make sure things that happened previously don't happen," said Dismas Ong'ondi, director of information and communication technology at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which replaced the body that oversaw the last vote.

"People become anxious when you delay releasing results," he said, after delays were partly blamed for the eruption of violence following the 2007 vote.

This time provisional results could emerge within hours of polls closing, although the IEBC has seven days to announce the official outcome.

Supporters of Odinga, who contested the 2007 vote against outgoing President Mwai Kibaki, were outraged when they were told after a long wait that their candidate had lost, and some alleged voting fraud. Kibaki was sworn in at night away from the public eye in another move that angered rivals.

CLOSE RACE

Polls suggest another close race this time. Odinga, from the Luo tribe, and Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, are way ahead of their six rivals but polls suggest there may not be an outright winner on Monday, so it may go to a run-off, provisionally set for April.

The commission has been widely praised for far greater impartiality and professionalism than its predecessor. But it is the first time such technology is being used across the nation, although they have been used for smaller scale votes.

Some observers worry that the commission has been cutting it fine to put all the systems in place in time, while Odinga has criticised the body for registering fewer of his supporters than for his rivals.

Two days before the vote, Odinga told Reuters the commission had not sent enough biometric voter registration kits to strongholds of his Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), so his voters were under-represented on voter lists.

IEBC chief executive James Oswago denied the charges, saying that all areas received the same treatment although some politicians had been better at drumming up registration. He said the 30-day registration period had not been extended, which Odinga said he had requested, because of a tight schedule.

But many of the 14 million eligible voters are more confident this time with the new system, even if some still fret about violence. They are also encouraged because of a reformed and more independent judiciary to adjudicate in any disputes.

"It looks like there will be no cheating. This system is good," said Isaac Muturi, a taxi driver in Nairobi's central business district. "This year the system looks better than in 2007, when there was a lot of cheating."

Results will be transmitted over a purpose-built mobile application on the Safaricom network.

As a further safeguard, Ong'ondi said the system stopped vote tallies being altered once they had been sent from polling stations and publicly displayed at the IEBC headquarters, on its website and in regional and other centres.

Dismissing worries equipment was not ready, IEBC chairman Ahmed Isaack Hassan told Reuters, "We know the concerns, but we are working round the clock to make sure everything is in place. We have been assured that they are ready and functioning."

Alongside a new president, voters will also choose senators, county governors, members of parliament, women representatives in county assemblies and civic leaders.

(Additional reporting by James Macharia; Editing by Edmund Blair and Pravin Char)

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