In Depth

Kenya goes to polls hoping to avoid violent crisis of 2007

East African nation faces its most 'important and complicated' election after bloodshed of previous poll

KENYA'S GENERAL election got off to a bloody start yesterday when at least four policemen were hacked to death by a gang armed with machetes in the coastal town of Kilifi. The incident – the day before polls opened – is a stark reminder of the violence unleashed by the 2007 election which left 1,100 dead and forced 600,000 people to flee their homes. Here's why today's election has been called the most "important and complicated" in the East African nation's 50-year history.

The events of 2007-2008 still haunt the country. Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the December 2007 poll, but his opponents claimed the vote had been manipulated. The dispute unleashed a wave of "ethnically targeted" violence that left at least 1,100 people dead and Kenya in the grip of what the BBC calls its "worst political crisis since it gained independence in 1963".

There are clear signs that the election may again trigger widespread violence. The top two presidential candidates - Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga - have a long history of strained relations and the result is likely to be as close as it was in 2007. The BBC says tensions in the country have risen again since the 2007-2008 crisis and "episodes of inter-ethnic violence, killings and the use of hate speech have increased". These events are a warning the country could "descend into violence worse than the crisis around the disputed general elections in December 2007", it says.

The police are braced for attacks on several fronts. Kenyan police are on a high state of alert because they believe voting will be disrupted by "criminals" dressed as police officers. The election is also likely to be disrupted by attacks by Somali militants and other tribal and political groups.

The man likely to be elected president is hugely controversial. Opinion polls suggest that 51-year-old Kenyatta will emerge victorious after today's poll. The Guardian points out that the US-educated politician is among four Kenyans facing international criminal court charges for "engineering" the ethnic violence that engulfed the country five years ago. Prosecutors accuse him of bankrolling the outlawed militia group Mungiki as it carried out revenge attacks.

If Kenyatta wins the world will be in "uncharted diplomatic waters". If he is victorious, Kenyatta will have the dubious honour of being the first democratically elected leader indicted by the ICC. The Guardian says that would be a particularly acute "diplomatic headache" because Kenya is a "key western ally, not least in the fight against terrorism in neighbouring Somalia".

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