KISUMU, Kenya (Reuters) - Kenyan politics is already taking a deadly toll more than a year before elections likely to pit rival dynasties against each other, raising fears of a new crisis less than a decade after ethnic violence killed 1,200 people.
With Kenya a valuable ally to the West in fighting militant Islam and a vital economic partner for neighbouring nations, the government insists it can deliver a smooth poll and avoid a repeat of the bloodshed after the 2007 presidential election.
But police in Nairobi, sometimes pelted by rocks, have beaten and kicked protesters who have taken to the streets since late April to demand the scrapping of an election oversight body that they accuse of pro-government bias, a charge it denies.
In west Kenya, an opposition stronghold, at least four people have died, including a protester shot dead on Monday in Kisumu, a city still scarred by the post-2007 vote violence.
“We are really scared,” said 30-year-old Julie Anyango, speaking near a Kisumu supermarket smashed up in this week’s clashes. In the main street, the charred shell of a shop remains unrepaired from the flare-up of late 2007 and early 2008.
“It is a minefield waiting to explode,” she said.
Kenya defied doomsayers in the last presidential election in 2013, when the result was contested but voting was calm.
But the August 2017 poll, when Kenyans will elect the president, parliament and county governors, poses a bigger challenge as this time, trust in institutions overseeing the vote has plunged and the county races are creating new conflicts.
How Kenya fares has broad consequences. Western nations fret about instability in a country fighting al Shabaab militants over the border in Somalia and at home. For neighbouring states, disruptions in the biggest regional economy threaten transport links through the country to the Indian Ocean and investment.
The unrest at opposition protests against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has rattled Western ambassadors, who have publicly appealed for dialogue and condemned the use of excessive force by police.
“There is a genuine fear and genuine worry that things might turn nasty,” said one of 12 envoys who signed the statements.
The 2017 vote is once again set to pitch President Uhuru Kenyatta against Raila Odinga, although neither has formally launched a campaign. Both will trumpet policy but they will ultimately rely on support from their ethnic groups.
The Kenyatta-Odinga rivalry has long shaped much of Kenya’s politics. Half a century ago, their fathers slugged it out before Jomo Kenyatta emerged as the first post-independence president. Oginga Odinga lost out.
The perceived injustice fires up Odinga’s supporters now.
“Kenya will burn if Raila loses,” said Wycliffe Otieno, 28, a motorbike taxi driver in Kisumu, where most people are from Odinga’s Luo community, one of the larger of Kenya’s more than 40 ethnic groups. Kenyatta’s Kikuyu is the biggest.
Ethnic voting leads to a formula some Kenyans call the “tyranny of numbers”; the biggest ethnic groups dominate politics and the winner is expected to let his fellow tribesmen “eat” at the trough of public funds. Others fight for scraps.
The opposition say the vote cannot be credible unless the IEBC is reformed and its commissioners changed. The government says this must be done in parliament, where Kenyatta’s Jubilee coalition dominates, in line with the constitution.
The president proposed on Wednesday a bipartisan parliamentary committee on the issue. Odinga’s spokesman Dennis Onyango said Kenyatta had “at least” recognised the need for dialogue but it was not enough. “If our concerns are not taken on board we will resume protests,” he said.
Battles for the 47 governorships are raising the stakes, pitting rivals including those from the same community against each other. The posts, first elected in 2013, are increasingly seen as valuable prizes with executive powers and a budget.
“This risks confrontation that is as much intra-ethnic and not necessarily just inter-ethnic,” said the Western envoy.
Devolving power to the counties had aimed to share out development cash and powers more evenly across a nation of 45 million people. It now risks spreading violence too.
“Devolution is rapidly turning into a theatre for violent local conflicts,” wrote University of Nairobi professor Karuti Kanyinga in the Daily Nation newspaper.
Those seeking governorships may have an eye on the 2022 poll when Kenyatta, if he wins next year, will have completed a maximum two terms.
“In the year 2022, the governors are going to play a very important role in who becomes the president,” said Wycliffe Oparanya, governor of Kakamega in west Kenya, who faces a challenge from a fellow member of the opposition CORD coalition.
In 2013 Odinga accepted - if begrudgingly - a court ruling throwing out his petition against the result, and the government is confident 2017 will also be peaceful. “The voice of reason will prevail,” said Munyori Buku, a director in the presidential communications unit.
But any flare-ups in counties could stretch security forces. Alongside this, public confidence has been eroded in the IEBC, which fumbled the 2013 vote when technology used to identify voters and transmit results to the centre broke down.
An Ipsos Synovate poll published in September last year by the Standard newspaper - months before the opposition protests erupted - indicated just 43 percent of people had confidence in the IEBC. In 2013, it said 62 percent had “a lot of confidence”.
Trust in the police and judiciary, two institutions subject to reforms under a 2010 constitution that sought to reshape the nation’s politics and institutions, has also plummeted.
Opponents accuse police of using live rounds against protesters. Officials blame armed thugs.
Odinga, who disputed results of the races he fought in 2007 and 2013, may also have more to lose in 2017 when he will be 72 years old. That could make it his final run for the top job.
In addition, there seemed to be a real threat in 2013 that anyone provoking violence would be hauled before the International Criminal Court. But this has faded following the collapse of cases against Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto who had been charged with orchestrating the post-2007 vote unrest. Both denied this.
“It is now beyond Kenyans, it is now beyond our leaders, the international community must save Kenya,” said Audi Ogada, head of the Kisumu City Residents Voice and opposition activist.
As youths butchered members of rival ethnic groups with machetes and torched homes in 2007-08, foreign governments helped to restore order with a deal making Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, president and Odinga prime minister, a post that has been scrapped since 2013.
But now the world is preoccupied with problems ranging from the migrant crisis to the Middle East conflict, and will also have to deal with a new U.S. president next year. That may leave little diplomatic energy to intervene in any Kenyan instability.
“The international political landscape has changed,” said the envoy. “It could take longer for the international community to react if something were to go wrong again.”
Editing by David Stamp