NAIROBI — Kenyan voters waited in line for hours Tuesday to decide a fiercely contested race for president, as concerns about possible ethnic violence in the wake of the vote put much of the country on edge.
The race — pitting incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, 55, against former prime minister Raila Odinga, 72 — appeared to have spurred a large turnout across one of Africa’s most vibrant democracies.
But Kenya has been torn by tribal clashes in the past, and Odinga has already told his supporters that he believed only fraud could stand in the way of victory.
Lines began forming before sunrise in Nairobi, snaking past the corrugated market stalls of its sprawling slums and alongside the upscale apartment buildings in its ritzy suburbs. After months of nonstop campaigning, the country’s roads were lined with party billboards.
The voter outpouring was a testament to the importance of the results.
Kenya’s next president will take the helm of an economy that has outpaced the vast majority of countries on the continent. Kenya now serves as a base for diplomats, business executives and aid workers, who have come to see the country as an island of relative stability in a fragile region, bordering South Sudan and Somalia.
But it is nonetheless a country fraught with problems — corruption in the public sector, terrorism emanating from neighboring Somalia and tribalism at home that has led to sometimes dangerous political clashes. In 2007, post-election violence left about 1,400 people dead.
People waiting in line expressed concern about possible unrest.
“Of course it’s on my mind after what happened in 2007,” said Edith Okech, 35, who voted with her 10-month-old daughter clinging to her shoulder.
Okech had avoided political rallies, fearing they might get out of hand, but on Tuesday there was no question that she would vote for Odinga. So she lined up at a polling center in a primary school near her home in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum.
Okech has a university degree in business administration, but like many Kenyans she has struggled to find work, even as the country’s economy has grown by more than 5 percent annually. She now sells cereal and other food in the slum.
“You take your kid to school, you struggle, and in the end there is nothing in return,” Okech said.
Her solution: She would vote out Kenyatta, hoping that Odinga would bring change that would trickle down to Kibera. Odinga had even chosen to cast his vote in the slum, a good sign, she thought.
But with Kenyan politics dictated mostly by tribal alliances, other polling sites dominated by Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe were filled with voters who longed to keep the president in power.
Under Kenyatta’s presidency, Aiddah Mungai’s life had improved dramatically. She started her own business — a bakery called the Cake Hub — and she watched as more and more customers came. Kenyatta had committed to modernizing the country, encouraging technological innovation, and Mungai had seen the results of those efforts firsthand, she said.
“I registered my business online. I pay my yearly licensing fees online,” she said. “It’s so much easier than it was.”
But Mungai recognized that even her vote was about more than just Kenyatta’s leadership. Like the president, she is Kikuyu.
“It’s a tribal thing here, no matter how much we say it’s not.”
It will likely take two or three days for the results of the election to be tabulated.
Odinga has already said that he believes he will only lose if the vote is rigged, and it remains unclear how he or his supporters would respond to such a loss. Odinga is running for his fourth — and likely last — time, adding pressure on his campaign.
“The transition from voting to counting is going to be critical and there is a process in place for that too. That’s why it is too early for us to be drawing any kinds of conclusions, but we will see where it goes,” saidKerry, who is here representing the Carter Center.
In a statement Monday, former president Obama weighed in on Kenya’s tribal tension, and the need for a peaceful vote.
“In Kenya’s election we have already seen too much incitement and appeals based on fear from all sides,” he said. “But I also know that the Kenyan people as a whole will be the losers if there is a descent into violence. You can make clear that you will reject those that want to deal in tribal and ethnic hatred.”