Thursday, March 7, 2013

Kenya: Ballot count begins; charge levied at UK

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) ? Election officials in Kenya transported their ballot counts to be tallied in the capital Wednesday after the preliminary electronic vote counting system broke down, while the coalition of a top presidential candidate levied charges of meddling against Britain's high commissioner.

The coalition of Deputy Prime Minster Uhuru Kenyatta ? the candidate that faces charges at the International Criminal Court and is the son of Kenya's founding president ? accused the British high commissioner of "shadowy, suspicious and rather animated involvement" in efforts to get the election commission to decide that rejected ballots should still be counted in the overall vote total.

Kenyatta's party also asked the high commissioner, Christian Turner, to explain what it called "the sudden upsurge of British military personnel" in Kenya. British troops attend a six-week training course near Mount Kenya before deploying to Afghanistan. A new battle group arrived the week before Kenyans voted.

Britain's Foreign Office said claims of British interference "are entirely false and misleading." The British soldiers in Kenya are part of a regular training program planned nine months ago "completely unrelated to the Kenyan elections." It said Britain has no position on the rejected votes, saying that the election commission or the courts should decide.

"We have always said that this election is a choice for Kenyans alone to decide," the Foreign Office said, adding: "We urge all sides to ensure calm, avoid inflammatory statements, and to take any disputes to the courts."

Kenyans on Monday held their first presidential vote since the nation's disputed election in 2007 spawned violence that killed more than 1,000 people. Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Kenyatta are the top two contenders.

Kenyans were growing increasingly frustrated that the announcements of public vote tallies ceased close to 48 hours after polls closed. The breakdown of the electronic vote system has meant less than half of preliminary results were released. Officials ? who have been working to ensure violence doesn't break out this election ? are calling for patience.

"The delay is giving rise to conspiracy theories. People are panicking about the delay in the results of the elections. But unlike last election there is a level of restraint," said Kevin Muriunge, a 25-year-old student.

Referring to long voting lines during Monday's vote, Alojz Peterle, a former president of Slovenia and the chief observer in the European Union observer mission, said that Kenyans have demonstrated they are capable of great patience.

"But even more patience is called for now," he said.

The election commission chairman announced late Tuesday that hundreds of thousands of ballots that were rejected for not following the rules would be counted in the overall vote total. That makes it very difficult, given the tight race, for either top candidate to reach the 50 percent mark needed to win outright.

Election observers from around the world said Wednesday that Kenya carried out a credible election Monday, but the groups reserved final judgments until the election process is completed. Some observers said it appeared a runoff between Odinga and Kenyatta is likely.

The partial preliminary results on Tuesday had shown an early lead for Kenyatta. Odinga's camp told supporters that the votes from his strongholds had not yet all been tallied.

The statement from Kenyatta's coalition Wednesday implied that the British high commissioner pressured the commission to make the decision on the spoiled ballots, thus ensuring a runoff.

John Stremlau, an election observer with The Carter Center, the body run by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, said that it might be better for Kenyatta's coalition to use "foreign powers" as a whipping post than attacking Kenyans.

"It does seem to me to be a mindset of the old colonial era that the foreign powers would be dictating to the (election commission) in any way," Stremlau said, adding later: "There are going to be accusations in every election ... and they must be backed by evidence. Show the proof and let the judges decide and we'll all be better off."

Franklin Bett, an official in Odinga's party, echoed that statement. "Talk is easy. Let them come with the evidence," he said.

William Ruto, Kenyatta's running mate, on Tuesday had also blamed "foreign missions" for swaying the electoral commission on its ballot decision. The decision "is meant to deny us a first-round win," Ruto was quoted as saying.

Kenya is the lynchpin of East Africa's economy and plays a vital security role in the fight against Somali militants. The U.S. Embassy in Kenya is the largest in Africa, indicating this country's importance to U.S. foreign policy.

The U.S. has warned of "consequences" if Kenyatta is to win, as have several European countries. Because Kenyatta is an ICC indictee, the U.S. and Europe have said they might have to limit contact with him, even if he is president.

Aisha Abdullahi, the commissioner for political affairs at the African Union, said it was good that Kenyan officials had planned for a backup system ? the physical tallies of votes ? given the breakdown in the electronic transmission system. He blamed the break-down on a failure of central computer servers.

"Yes, we in Africa are trying to catch up with you guys with electronic things. We are not yet as proficient as Western Europe or North America," said Festus Mogae in response to a question from a European reporter. Mogae is a former president of Botswana and head of the Commonwealth observer mission.

"That it's failed is no surprise to me. It often does in our countries."


Associated Press reporter Rodney Muhumuza contributed to this report.


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