UPDATED: Rigging allegations begin as Kenyan media slow tally of votes in tight presidential race

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NAIROBI, Aug 12 (Reuters) – Without providing any proof, the secretary-general of Kenya’s governing party has said the country’s elections were rigged, fuelling public anxiety on Friday as media houses significantly slowed down their unofficial tallies of the presidential vote.

Only the electoral commission is authorised to declare a winner, but the tallies were seen as a bulwark against the kind of rigging allegations that have previously sparked violence.

Kenya, East Africa’s richest and most stable nation, has a history of violent election disputes. More than 1,200 people were killed after the 2007 elections and more than 100 after the 2017 elections.

So far the polls were generally praised by international observers, but problems usually emerge after results are announced.

Outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta must step down after serving the constitutional maximum of two five-year terms. His would-be successors are former political prisoner and veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto. Kenyatta has fallen out with Ruto and endorsed Odinga.

RIGGING CLAIM

Late on Thursday, the chairman of Kenyatta’s Jubilee party issued a statement alleging “massive subtle rigging” and claiming the “electoral process was highly compromised” after Ruto’s party made a strong showing in an area where the dominant ethnicity is the same as Kenyatta.

The statement alleged voter intimidation, bribery, illegal displaying of campaign materials in polling station, mishandling of party agents and incorrect use of election materials. It provided no evidence and did not explain why the allegations had been made so late. Party officials were unreachable for comment.

Previous elections have largely been determined by ethnic voting blocs. But Ruto has sought to make this election about economics, portraying himself as a self-made “hustler” in contrast to political “dynasties”. Odinga and Kenyatta are the sons of Kenya’s first vice president and president, respectively.

Ian Dan, a parcel service attendant the main bus park in Odinga’s stronghold of Kisumu, said business was very slow.

“We are in darkness and this is not good for us. People are anxious and need to have a clear picture,” he said. “There are allegations of rigging flying in social media, but many people are waiting to hear from Raila Odinga or William Ruto. Their word will influence people’s reaction.”

MEDIA SLOWDOWN

Media tallies, which had nearly stopped by Friday morning, showed both leading candidates neck and neck, just under the 50% mark they needed to win. Less than a percent was divided between two other marginal candidates.

If no candidate wins more than 50% plus one vote, the two frontrunners will have a run-off.

The electoral commission is the only body legally authorised to declare a winner. It initially uploaded images of results forms from more than 46,000 polling stations, but had not tallied them. Instead, media houses employed teams to download forms and enter them into a database.

More than 99.7% of polling station results are in but thousands have not been counted by the media. The abrupt slowdown started when around 80% of the vote had been counted.

Prominent Kenyan columnist and cartoonist Patrick Gathara criticised the slowdown, tweeting: “So once again KE media have chickened out and have stopped updating their counts? It was too good to last.”

But executives from Citizen and Nation media groups said exhausted staff needed a rest.

“Now we have about a third of people working that we started with and we intend to pick up pace in the next few hours when the rest of the team come back,” said Linus Kaikai, Director of Strategy at Citizen.

Stephen Gitagama, the CEO of Nation Media group, said his staff also needed a rest and that they focused on quality control. He referred Reuters to the election commission, known as the IEBC.

“IEBC bears the responsibility of providing the results, not the media,” he said.

On Friday morning, the election commission had finally begun displaying an official count of presidential results on a board at the main tallying center. It had counted 1.5% of the vote.

At 0730 GMT, a Reuters tally of 180 out of 291 constituency-level results had Ruto leading by 51.66% and Odinga at 47.69%. Eleven constituency-level results images were unreadable or lacked totals.

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