Kenya held its first presidential debate Monday, giving voters an opportunity to hear from all eight candidates, and kicking off what many hope will be a new kind of election season in the country where violence marred the last national vote in 2007.
Millions of Kenyans are estimated to have tuned in to the historic debate that was broadcast on eight local television stations, 34 radio stations and streamed live via YouTube.
The first round of Kenya’s general election will take place on March 4, and a run-off vote will take place in April if no candidate grabs more than 50 percent of the vote.
Analysts worry that a tight race could spell trouble for the country given the violence that erupted following its last contested national poll.
The shadow of Kenya’s 2007 presidential election still hangs over the country. A series of political riots turned into ethnic violence left nearly 1,200 people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.
In addition to the loss of human life, the fallout from the last election has also damaged Kenya’s international image as East Africa’s biggest success story — a title the country hopes to regain with a smooth and violence-free election season.
Deputy prime minister and presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, are both facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged roles in the 2007 election violence.
Kenyatta is a favorite with voters ahead of the election, however, his alleged role in the 2007 killings have cast a pall over his bright election prospects.
"I will be able to handle the issue of clearing our names ... while at the same time ensuring that the business of government continues," Kenyatta said in reply to a question about how he and running-mate Ruto will manage court appearances and running the country if elected.
Kenya’s other front-runner, Raila Odinga, also played a critical role in the 2007 violence when his charge of election rigging kicked off the fighting.
During the debate, the candidates were forced to answer questions about whether their campaign would fuel ethnic tensions to gain votes in the upcoming poll. Both Kenyatta and Odinga denounced any such aims with Odinga calling tribalism "a disease of the elite" and “a battle for resources.”
The minister accused the envoys of stoking tensions and attempting to divide the country ahead of the elections by making remarks last week that "are clearly inflammatory and could have the effect of polarizing the country."
Also Monday, Kenya’s Foreign Minister Sam Ongeri accused ambassadors from European nations of polarizing the country with inflammatory statements about candidates.
"You will appreciate that with the impending elections just three weeks away, this is a tense moment of national reflection," Ongeri warned the ambassadors. "The question that begs an answer therefore is whether the EU has an interest in the outcome of the elections."
Although the EU's head of delegation responded by denying any display of favoritism toward any candidate, last week envoys from Britain, France and other EU states said that if Kenyatta is elected, they would have only limited contact with him because of his ICC indictment.
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(Photo: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)