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Originally published March 10, 2013 at 5:44 PM | Page modified March 10, 2013 at 9:20 PM

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Kenyan public remains calm in face of disputed election

People seem determined to avoid the tribal violence that broke out after the 2007 election, killing more than 1,000 people and tainting the country’s reputation as an emerging democracy.

Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press

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NAIROBI, Kenya — As Kenya faced another disputed election Sunday, the country passed an important test: Despite outrage among many Kenyans over a result they saw as flawed, there was no major outbreak of violence. Security forces dispersed the few protests, earlier banned by authorities.

Kenyans seemed determined to break with the past, when tribal violence broke out after the disputed 2007 election, killing more than 1,000 people and tainting the country’s reputation as an emerging democracy.

But in the drive to avoid dissent and violence, the country brushed aside what some activists called a failed election, caused by the repeated blunders and technical problems of the Independent Election and Boundaries Commission.

After a divisive and tense election, Kenya now faces an equally tense Supreme Court hearing on its outcome, with cases to be brought not just by the losing side, but also by a group of independent anti-corruption activists, the African Center for Open Governance.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga refused to concede to challenger Uhuru Kenyatta, saying it was impossible to know who won the election because every instrument of the election commission had failed. The commission declared Kenyatta the winner.

Citing “rampant illegality,” Odinga said he was challenging the result in court to defend Kenyan democracy.

He said the complaints of his party’s agents had been ignored and they had been shut out by the election commission, which refused to countenance a recount, despite the extremely narrow margin by which Kenyatta surpassed the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff.

The narrow margin and repeated failures of the commission raise the possibility the Supreme Court could call for an audit of the election result, analysts said.

Kenyatta got 50.07 percent of the vote, a margin of about 8,000 votes out of more than 12 million cast.

Despite the failures, Kenya’s news media were muted in their reportage of the commission problems. Even international observers have tiptoed around the subject.

In the Nairobi slum of Kibera, the Rev. Joshua Kimuyu pointed where his church floor is broken and black, a scar from an attack five years old. More than 200 young men armed with crude weapons had stormed the Africa Inland Church and set a generator on fire. The explosion tore through the roof, creating one of the most visible scenes of postelection violence after Kenya’s disputed election of 2007.

This year, Kimuyu said, there was nothing to fear after the two leading candidates pleaded for calm and unity.

“When presidential candidates spoke to the media, they kind of fueled the steam in the people,” he said, looking back on the disputed election of 2007, when more than 1,000 people died in tribe-on-tribe violence.

But this time, although the election was hotly contested and close, the candidates urged Kenyans to respect authority, and that appears to have made a difference, said Kimuyu.

No violence was reported Sunday. Only the most minor of disturbances were reported late Saturday in the hours after Kenyatta was named the winner.

Kenyatta stands accused by the International Criminal Court of helping direct some of the 2007-08 postelection violence in which tribes attacked each other with machetes and bows and arrows and the police shot protesters.

Five years ago, President Mwai Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in for a second term, even as Odinga said the election had been stolen. His supporters took to the streets.

At the time, Kimuyu’s church was targeted because it was believed to be patronized by the Kamba tribesmen of Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, whose willingness to serve in Kibaki’s government was seen as a betrayal by the opposition.

In the wake of the 2007-08 violence, Kenyans passed a new constitution. That document says President-elect Kenyatta cannot be sworn in before the court rules on the petition Odinga says he will file. If the court rules that Kenyatta did not cross the 50 percent mark, then Kenyans will vote in a runoff election between the top two finishers.

For Kimuyu this is tremendous progress from five years ago, when Odinga called for mass action.

“I think this is one of the things that have changed since the last election,” Kimuyu said. “Odinga is an advocate of the new constitution.”

In the Kibera slum, an Odinga stronghold that saw some of the worst violence after the 2007 election, residents went about their business on Sunday morning. Stalls were open, and some young men even seemed more animated by European soccer than by the outcome of the election. In Kimuyu’s church, a choir sang as the minister got ready to deliver a sermon that he said would focus on what it means to be a responsible, lawful citizen.

“We never talk politics here,” said Ericson Munyao, a longtime member of the church. “We just tell them to vote wisely, not who to vote for. We simply preach peace.”

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