NAIROBI Kenya's opposition challenger Raila Odinga took the lead on Friday in the race to govern east Africa's biggest economy, the vote count showed, while tempers frayed over delays in the counting process.
If the wealthy heir of a nationalist hero wins, President Mwai Kibaki would become the first of Kenya's three post-independence leaders to be ousted by the ballot box.
By 10:15 p.m. (1915 GMT), the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) had released results from 69 of the country's 210 constituencies, with Odinga leading by 1,691,679 votes to 1,222,725 for Kibaki.
Three local TV stations aired unofficial, partial results showing Odinga holding a commanding lead. KTN had him on 3.5 million votes versus Kibaki's 2.9 million. That represented more than half the 8-10 million ballots thought to have been cast.
Anxiety grew at the electoral commission delays.
"In this era of technology it is surprising that ECK seems to be moving at a snail's pace in satisfying public hunger for information," civil society groups said in a statement.
"ECK must do better ... otherwise a situation will be created where sections of Kenyans will dispute the results."
Scenting victory, Odinga's supporters said they feared the hold-up meant the government was plotting to rig the result.
"Is this a strategy to impose a rejected regime on the people?" asked opposition official Joseph Nyaga.
The ECK denied any malpractice but also lamented the delays.
"If results were announced on the media two hours ago, the returning officer has no excuse for not getting them to us," ECK Commissioner Jack Tumwa said. "The country is getting restless."
"ENVY OF AFRICA"
Diplomats said Thursday's poll was only the second truly democratic election in a country that votes largely on ethnic and geographic lines and spent 39 years ruled by one party until Kibaki's landslide victory in 2002.
An ECK spokesman said turnout looked to be the highest since multi-party politics were reintroduced in 1992, and foreign observers said voting had gone smoothly, despite some violence and allegations of ballot fraud by both sides.
"The ECK has run elections with efficiency and independence that should be the envy of the rest of Africa," the Daily Nation newspaper said in an editorial.
But there was sporadic trouble again on Friday.
In one incident, police fired in the air to disperse youths accusing Education Minister George Saitoti of trying to steal the parliamentary vote in Kajiado, south of Nairobi.
In Kamukunji, north of the city, security officers fired tear gas into a counting hall where a fracas broke out.
Near Kisii in the southwest, residents said a parliamentary candidate shot and wounded two people after he lost his seat.
In Odinga's Nyanza homeland, in the west, many radios were tuned to election announcements, while others blared out songs praising the candidate as a beloved man of the people.
"Even if Kibaki votes drop like rain, there is no way that man will win," said one ebullient youth in Kisumu town.
Numerous well-known faces lost their seats in the polls, including Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, the vice-president, and a dozen ministers, local media said.
Kibaki, 76, wants a second five-year term before retiring to his highland tea farm after a political career that has spanned Kenya's post-independence history.
Boasting a record of 5 percent average economic growth, he has the support of his Kikuyu tribe, Kenya's largest and most economically powerful, but trailed narrowly in pre-vote polls.
Odinga, 62, a former political prisoner educated in communist East Germany, wants to be the first in his Luo tribe to take the country's top job.
Odinga has won support from other ethnic groups resentful of Kikuyu power. If he wins, he will have to enlist Kikuyu support and allay business fears he is a left-wing radical.
(Additional reporting by Duncan Miriri, George Obulutsa, Joseph Sudah, Wangui Kanina, Andrew Cawthorne, Bryson Hull, Helen Nyambura-Mwaura, Nicolo Gnecchi in Nairobi and Guled Mohamed in Kisumu; Editing by Bryson Hull)