Kenyans await ruling in disputed presidential race

NAIROBI Fri Mar 29, 2013 7:34pm EDT

People watch a live broadcast on the last day of the presidential poll petition in Kenya's capital Nairobi, March 28, 2013. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

People watch a live broadcast on the last day of the presidential poll petition in Kenya's capital Nairobi, March 28, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Noor Khamis

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NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's Supreme Court rules on Saturday on a challenge to Uhuru Kenyatta's presidential election win, a judgment seen as a test of the democratic system five years after another disputed vote triggered tribal bloodshed.

The country's outgoing president called for calm ahead of the decision that will either confirm the victory of Kenya's richest man Kenyatta or force another vote.

Defeated candidate Raila Odinga says the March 4 poll was marred by technical problems and widespread rigging. Both politicians have promised to abide by the court's final word.

Many ordinary Kenyans insist they will not allow a repeat of the anarchy that killed more than 1,200 people and hammered the economy following a dispute over the last election in 2007.

"We have moved on," said Monica Njagi, 28, owner of an Internet cafe in the port city of Mombasa. "Whatever the ruling, we shall go by it ... We have enough useful lessons from our past."

Peaceful voting this time round, and the fact that the dispute is being played out by lawyers not machete-wielding gangs, has already helped repair the image of east Africa's largest economy.

Saturday's ruling will test whether Kenyans trust their reformed judiciary and whether supporters of rival candidates will accept the result quietly in a nation where tribal loyalties largely determine political allegiances.

Chief Justice Willy Mutunga has yet to set a time on Saturday that he and his panel of judges will issue a verdict. Comments at a brief hearing on Friday suggested it might not come till later on Saturday.

"As the country awaits the Supreme Court ruling which is due this Easter weekend, I call upon all of us to accept the ruling and maintain peace," outgoing President Mwai Kibaki said in a message to mark the Christian Easter holiday.

"ESSENTIAL CONTACTS"

Western donors are watching the fate of a trade partner and a country they see as vital to regional stability. But they also face a headache if Kenyatta wins, because he is facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

Kenyatta is accused of helping incite the violence after the 2007 vote but has denied the charges and promised to cooperate to clear his name.

Western nations have a policy of having only "essential contacts" with indictees of the court. They say that will not affect dealings with the government as a whole. But they still face a delicate balancing act to avoid driving a long-time ally of the West closer to emerging powers such as China.

Neighboring African states are also keeping a careful eye on the proceedings after they were hit by the knock-on effects when vital trade routes through Kenya were shut down five years ago.

Kenyatta comfortably beat Odinga in terms of votes won, 50.07 percent versus 43.28 percent, but only narrowly avoided a run-off after winning just 8,100 votes more than the 50 percent needed to be declared the winner outright.

In the Supreme Court's hearing on Friday, the legal teams reviewed results of recounts ordered in 22 of the 33,400 polling stations after Odinga said more votes were cast than registered voters. Both sides said the recounts supported their arguments.

Odinga's team argued that the failure of technology in tallying undermined the vote. Rival lawyers said any irregularities or technical hiccups had an insignificant impact and did not change the overall outcome.

International observers said voting itself was credible, but diplomats say observers did not watch the full five-day count.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Akwiri in Mombasa; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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