NAIROBI Kenya's president-elect, whose victory is being challenged in the Supreme Court, apologized on Thursday for comments in which he seemed to dismiss the judges as "some six people" who will "decide something or other".
Uhuru Kenyatta, who also faces trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity over post-election violence five years ago, made the remarks - which went viral on social media - while consulting with allies at a resort.
The gaffe emerged after Kenya's chief justice last week told politicians to stop speaking publicly about the petition against the March 4 election result, to try to ease any tensions over a case seen as a major test of the country's democratic system.
"It was not my intention to sound casual in reference to our Supreme Court Judges," Kenyatta said. "For that reason, I offer my sincere apologies. My informality may be interpreted as disrespect for the court and that is not the case."
Kenyatta's long-time rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, alleges "rampant illegality" in the vote that handed the son of Kenya's founding president a first-round victory. Kenyatta says the voting was fair. A ruling is expected on Saturday.
An audio of Kenyatta's remarks late on Wednesday, at a Rift Valley resort where he met allies who won seats in parliament and other politicians, swiftly spread on Twitter under the hashtag #sixpeople and Facebook. here
"I look forward, sincerely, to working with you once some six people decide something or other. We're ready anyway, we're ready once they decide and rule ... I hope you are also ready," Kenyatta told the gathering of his political coalition.
The speed at which the comments spread on social media showed the intense public scrutiny of the vote. The authorities have throughout the campaign warned against any reporting or commentary on social media that could fuel tensions.
Chief Justice Willy Mutunga did not comment on Kenyatta's remarks or his apology when the court resumed the final day of hearings on Thursday before it adjourns to consider a ruling.
But Mutunga summoned Law Society of Kenya Chairman Eric Mutua for making comments about the case.
Mutua made the comments as he announced the formation of a nine-member team by the LSK to investigate what he called the mass failure of IEBC electronic systems used during the vote.
A swift and transparent resolution of the dispute that has unnerved the stock market is seen as critical to restoring the reputation of east Africa's biggest economy as a stable democracy, after it was dented by weeks of fighting in 2008.
Peaceful voting went a long way to allaying those fears. But the real test will come with Saturday's ruling, which both Kenyatta and Odinga have said they will accept.
Many Kenyans insist there will be no repeat of the bloodshed that followed the late 2007 election and cost more than 1,200 lives. This time the candidates have pursued differences through the newly reformed judiciary rather than on the streets.
On Wednesday, lawyers challenging Kenyatta's victory said a new technology meant to counter fraud had broken down, leading to a manipulated vote count. The commission has rejected claims of fraud and declared the vote free and fair.
On Thursday, Mohammed Nyaoga, a lawyer for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), rejected what he called Odinga's "speculative" allegations.
"Will this court precipitate a constitutional crisis by ordering fresh elections because the petitioner says he does not trust the IEBC? ... You must reject that invitation," he said.
"There is no proof to show how the irregularities cited affected the elections," Nyaoga said.
Senior counsel Ahmednassir Abdullahi, a lawyer for IEBC's Chairman Ahmed Issack, said Odinga had not proved his case.
"This petition is of momentous political significance. This case will make or break this court," he said. "Failure of all machines does not translate into the failure of the electoral process."
Kenyatta, who could possibly be sworn in a week after the ruling if it goes in his favor, won 50.07 percent of the vote, well ahead of Odinga's 43.28 percent but only just above the 50 percent level needed to avoid a run-off.
Western nations have said a Kenyatta victory would complicate relations because of the International Criminal Court charges, which he denies. The West is also concerned about the fate of a country with which it has strong business ties and counts as an ally in a regional struggle against militant Islam.
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)