Striking Scenes of Anticipation and Hope on Kenya's Election Day

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In the early hours before dawn on Monday morning, Kenya seemed to be wide-awake in anticipation. Millions of voters across the country eagerly lined up at polling stations, some as early as one or two in the morning, to take part in the nation's fourth democratic multi-party election, and what many analysts say is the nation's most critical in recent history.

The March 4 election is Kenya's first general election since 2007, when post-election violence sparked by alleged rigging, ballot stuffing, and voter intimidation tore the country apart over tribal lines, leaving more than 1,000 dead and more than half a million displaced. A cloud of fear has hung over the country in recent weeks that ethnic violence could once again flare up, as it has in the past. But analysts and journalists alike have been claiming that there is a growing sense of hope that Kenya has learned from the past, reformed its institutions, and is ready to move forward

Kenya's general election is an eight-way presidential race that is essentially down to a neck-and-neck face off between two candidates. Current Prime Minister Raila Odinga, of the CORD alliance, who agreed to a power-sharing deal with current President Mwai Kibaki after the last disputed elections, is up against current Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Coalition. Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's founding president, who is also on trial at the International Criminal Court for allegedly inciting violence during the 2007 presidential election.

In an effort to help reform the country's voting system and implement a widely popular new constitution approved in a peaceful 2010 referendum, this election has also been the most complex in Kenya's history. New biometric voter registration technology has been introduced to reduce fraudulent voting, and for the first time voters cast a total of six ballots to fill new county positions, part of Kenya's process of devolving central government control into 47 counties.

Election day itself was marked by unprecedented voter turnout (early estimates say 70 percent of Kenya's 14 million registered voters showed up), followed by incredibly long polling station lines. Voters waited patiently, in some cases upwards of nine or ten hours under a sweltering sun, to cast their vote. 

While the general atmosphere could be described as cautiously optimistic, the elections were marred by incidents of violence before, during, and even after voting. Yet these outbreaks generally occurred in areas that have seen escalating conflict in recent months -- Kenya's coast and it's northern boarder, near Somalia. In the coastal city of Mombasa, 15 people, including four confirmed police officers, were killed in an early morning ambush at a police station. In Garissa, AP reported that several armed gunmen took over a polling station after the polls closed. Sporadic incidents of violence, voter buying, and unrest were reported in various parts of the country, but they were generally isolated. 

Despite the long lines, glitches in electronic voter registration systems, power outages, and some confusion over polling stations queues, voters remained by and large peaceful throughout the country. 

The success of Kenya's election hinges greatly on voter's confidence in the newly established Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, an independent commission that is overseeing the voting process. In most polling stations, citizens reported an appropriate number of police and independent observers present, instilling a sense of confidence and security in the process.

The results are still coming in, and while Election Day may have been peaceful, the international community, which is closely monitoring the outcomes, is still holding its breath. To win, a presidential candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the vote, otherwise the leading two contenders face a run-off election on April 11. While the government and ordinary Kenyans seem far more prepared to handle violence this time around if the situation flares, a run-off may agitate current tensions.

(Photos and text by Jonathan Kalan)

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In Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum -- which went up in flames and was one of the hardest-hit areas during the 2008 post-election violence -- many voters began waiting in line as early as one or two in the morning.

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Campaign posters litter the streets of the Kibera slums, presidential candidate Raila Odinga's constituency. Odinga is from the Luo tribe, as are many of Kibera's residents. Voters line up before dawn at Olympic Primary School Polling Station in Kibera.

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Some tightly packed polling stations opened precisely at 6 a.m., but electrical problems and issues with the biometric voter registration systems forced several polling stations across the country to open several hours late, causing frustration among voters.

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Voters line up just after dawn at the Olympic Primary School polling station in Kibera, Nairobi.

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Inside the Olympic Primary School Polling Station in Kibera, IEBC officials were on hand to ensure voters were registered for each ballot -- six in total -- only once. At the polling stations in Kibera, each room had at least five independent election observers to monitor voting.

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Agnes Muthoni Ngemu casts the first ballot at Olympic Primary School Polling Station in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya. She had been there since 4:30 in the morning.

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Front covers of Kenya's two leading daily papers, urging a peaceful election.

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CORD Alliance Presidential candidate and current Prime Minister Raila Odinga votes at Old Kibera Primary School Polling Station in Kibera, Nairobi. In a brief statement, he urged Kenyans to remain peaceful throughout the election and said that although he was confident he would win in the first round, he would accept the results regardless of the outcome.

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Voters line up at a polling station in downtown Nairobi. This line wrapped around more than two city blocks twice, stretching over a kilometer.

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Voters line up at a polling station in downtown Nairobi.

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At the DC Grounds polling station in Kibera, a man with a homemade Obama mask urges voters to conduct a peaceful election.

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At Bomas of Kenya, where the ballots were securly being counted, live television broadcasts of preliminary results were broadcast on an enormous screen. The is the first election in Kenya where results are being broacast in real time to citizens with the hope of offering greater transparancy in the electoral process.

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Technology played a key roll in this year's election. In 2008, hate speech, fear, and violence were spread via text message and social media. This time, a citizen reporting platform called Uchaguzi (you decide) monitored any reports of polling station incidents or violence submitted anonymously by users via text, Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail and sent them to the appropriate authorities.

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Kibera graffiti artist solo7 paints messages of peace along the roads in Kibera, Kenya's largest slum and an epicenter of post-election violence in 2008.
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Jonathan Kalan is a photojournalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Financial Times and on NYTimes.com.

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