Kenya goes to the polls today to elect a new president, parliament and various local officials. If, as seems likely, no presidential candidate wins a majority of the vote, a second round will be held within 30 days.

It’s sad but true that the most effective way for African countries to get western attention (sometimes the only way) is by mass killing. That was the case with the last Kenyan election, in 2007, in which a disputed result led to ethnic violence in which hundreds of people died, and eventually to an internationally-brokered compromise agreement.

Under the deal, the official winner, Mwai Kibaki, has served as president and his rival, Raila Odinga (who many observers think really won the vote), as prime minister. Clearly a lot of issues have just been awkwardly swept under the carpet, but at least the bloodshed has largely stopped, and a new agency, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, has been established to try to ensure fair and transparent elections in the future.

Kibaki is prevented by term limits from running again, but Odinga is a candidate again this time. His main opponent is Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta. Unfortunately, Kenyatta is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in relation to the 2007-08 violence. So is his running mate, William Ruto, although at the time they were on opposite sides.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, under Kenyatta senior, Kenya was perhaps the most successful of Africa’s one-party states. The argument has since been consigned to the dustbin of history, but when people in those days maintained that a one-party system could still be democratic, it was most likely to be Kenya that they had in mind.

Things went downhill after Kenyatta died in 1978. His successor, Daniel arap Moi, eventually conceded a multi-party system in the 1990s; he was re-elected, but on his retirement in 2002 Kibaki beat Kenyatta junior by a margin of about two to one – the first time power in Kenya had been transferred peacefully. Now Kibaki and Kenyatta are on the same side, while Odinga, who supported Kibaki in 2002, is now making his third attempt at the presidency.

The subtext to much of the political rivalry is ethnic division. Kenyatta and Kibaki are both Kikuyu, a Bantu people, while Odinga and Ruto are from Nilotic groups (Luo and Kalenjin, respectively; Barack Obama’s family are also Luo). The Bantu, who account for about two-thirds of the population, are traditionally farmers and the Nilotic people are pastoralists, although much of the violence has taken place among the urban poor.

There have been hopes that the inter-ethnic alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto would minimise tension this time, but having a president who faced trial at the ICC would not help to endear Kenya to the international community. Opinion polls put Odinga narrowly ahead, with a margin of a couple of percentage points in the first round, probably widening a little in the runoff.

Polls close at 5pm Kenyan time, which is 1am in eastern Australia. Whatever the results are, let’s hope they’re more peacefully received than last time.

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