NAIROBI Kenyan authorities hope to deliver the final outcome of a presidential vote on Wednesday, after partial results showed a lead for a politician wanted in the Hague over tribal violence at the last election five years ago.
Counting since Monday's vote has been slow, and a new electronic voter system has been plagued by hitches, leading to complaints by political parties and anxiety among voters fearful that a flawed process could lead to another violent dispute.
Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, 51, has kept an early lead since results started trickling in after polls closed on Monday, but some strongholds for his rival Prime Minister Raila Odinga, 68, have yet to declare their results.
After problems with the electronic system, the electoral commission said it would rely instead on results being delivered manually to a national tallying centre overnight. It said it hoped to declare the winner on Wednesday and urged Kenyans to remain calm.
Results released on Tuesday with half of ballots counted showed Kenyatta, son of Kenya's independence leader and one of Africa's richest men, leading with 53 percent, against 42 percent for veteran politician Odinga.
Kenyatta and his deputy presidential running mate are both wanted in the Hague on charges of unleashing death squads after the last vote in 2007, which both men deny.
The last election saw some 1,200 people killed in ethnic violence after outgoing president Mwai Kibaki was declared the victor over Odinga. This time, Monday's vote saw at least 15 people killed in pockets of violence but no repeat so far of unrest on such a large scale.
If neither major candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, Kenyatta and Odinga would have to face each other in a second round run-off, pencilled in for next month if necessary.
"We can confirm that our returning officers are expected to bring the physical results at anytime now, which will lead to the final results. What matters here is the final result and they are coming in," Ahmed Issack Hassan, chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries commission, told a news conference on Tuesday evening.
Hassan repeated that despite the hitches, he expected the vote to be fair and credible.
"We therefore continue to appeal for patience from the public," he said earlier in the day. "Nobody should celebrate, nobody should complain."
To try to prevent a repeat of the contested outcome that sparked the violence after the December 2007 vote, the new, broadly-respected election commission is using more technology to prevent fraud, speed up counting and increase transparency. But the new system has come up short of its expectations.
Election officials had said turnout was more than 70 percent of the 14.3 million eligible voters.
Kenyans, who waited patiently in long lines, hope the vote will restore the nation's image as one of Africa's more stable democracies, damaged by the tribal blood-letting in 2007.
Kenya is East Africa's biggest economy and, although led by authoritarian and corrupt rulers for most of its half century of independence, has been spared the civil wars that devastated neighbours like Somalia, Sudan, Uganda and Rwanda.
More recently it has served as an ally of the West against Islamist militancy in the horn of Africa, sending troops to Somalia to fight al-Shabaab rebels. An explosion struck a predominantly Somali neighbourhood in the capital Nairobi late on Tuesday, injuring one person, highlighting the threat from insurgents in the region.
The United States and Western donors have watched the vote closely, concerned about the stability of their ally and fretting about what to do if Kenyatta wins and its new president is an indicted international crimes suspect.
The broadly peaceful voting on Monday and the big turnout are positive signs, but the real test will be whether the candidates and their backers accept the result.
The shilling currency lost some of its earlier gains after the slow count cast doubt on whether a first-round victor would emerge. Analysts said an outright win would be preferred to a run-off, which would prolong uncertainty.
As in past elections in Kenya, much of the voting has been on ethnic lines, with Kenyatta enjoying strong support among his Kikuyu tribe, Kenya's largest, and Odinga backed by the Luo, the tribe which includes the family of U.S. President Barack Obama.
In a country with a handful of large tribes and dozens of smaller ones, both candidates lead broader coalitions and are also relying on support from the tribes of their running mates.
William Ruto, Kenyatta's running mate who also faces charges of crimes against humanity at the ICC, said the process of tallying and relaying results had seen serious challenges.
The electoral commission decided to count more than 330,000 ballots that had earlier been disallowed. Ruto suggested this could be a move to block a Kenyatta victory in the first round.
"We want to believe that this is not an attempt to deny the Jubilee Coalition a first round victory as is clearly now on the wall," he told reporters, referring to a screen with the latest tally. "We urge every Kenyan to be calm and very patient and await the official release of these results by the commission."
All the candidates have pledged to accept the outcome, and ordinary Kenyans speak passionately about their determination not to allow a repeat of the violence five years ago.
Streets have been all but deserted with businesses closed, including supermarkets and security personnel were beefed up countrywide in readiness for possible demonstrators.
Some residents in Odinga's western Kisumu heartland were still optimistic that the tide would change in his favour.
"People should be patient; in 2007 Mr Odinga was leading against Mwai Kibaki in preliminary results. The following day when we woke up, things turned upside down and Kibaki won the elections. I believe the same thing could happen," said 31 year old Christopher Otieno, a businessman.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Mwanza; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Peter Graff)