NAIROBI, Kenya – Millions of Kenyans poured into polling stations on Monday to cast their ballots in a crucial, anxiously-awaited presidential election, and as the voting proceeded relatively smoothly a real chance emerged that a candidate charged with crimes against humanity could win the race.
In the early vote count, Uhuru Kenyatta, the scion of a political family who has been accused by the International Criminal Court of financing death squads, held a commanding lead of 56 percent to 40 percent over the second-place candidate, Raila Odinga, Kenya's prime minister. Election observers cautioned that the preliminary results may not be representative of the countrywide vote, but Mr. Kenyatta's lead remained strong from the moment the first tallies came in.
The United States and other Western allies of Kenya have warned of possible "consequences" if Mr. Kenyatta wins, though few Western officials have wanted to discuss exactly what kind of repercussions or sanctions this could bring.
Voter turnout on Monday was tremendous, election officials said, starting hours before dawn, with lines of voters stretching nearly a mile long.
In the Kibera slum, a sprawling settlement of rusted shanties and footpaths littered with plastic bags, mango pits and virtually every other class of garbage, some people waited nine hours on their feet under a withering sun.
"We're tired ! We're tired!" they yelled. But still, they stayed in their places, with no food or drink, determined to vote.
"People didn't come in a trickle, they flooded," said Njeri Kabeberi, the head of the Center for Multiparty Democracy - Kenya, a non-profit organization.
Ms. Kabeberi said the voting was slow in many places but orderly, and that overall the election was going "very, very well."
This is Kenya's first presidential vote since 2007, when a dubious election, marred by widespread evidence of vote rigging, set off ethnic clashes that swept across the country and killed more than 1,000 people. Many Kenyans have worried that history could repeat itself, and in the past week, the atmosphere in Nairobi has been almost like a hurricane about to hit.
Flour, rice, bread and other staples have been stripped from supermarket shelves as families stock up on supplies, in case riots break out. Stores were shuttered on Monday and most cars stayed off the roads. Many people have fled ethnically-mixed urban areas, fearing reprisal killings should the vote go awry.
The worst violence erupted on Kenya's coast, but it was not clear how connected it was to the voting. Police officials said that a large gang -- possibly up to 200 people -- ambushed a patrol in the port city of Mombasa early Monday morning and killed four officers with machetes. At least two other police officers were killed in other locations, and authorities immediately blamed the Mombasa Republican Council, a fringe separatist group that had opposed the elections and believes Kenya's coastal zone should be a separate country.
Analysts said the attackers may have timed their strikes to take advantage of the fact that Kenya's security services were stretched extremely thin, with a rifle-toting security officer assigned to the door of each polling station – and there were more than 30,000 stations nationwide.
Kenya's most powerful politicians have been urging voters to be peaceful and to avoid the mayhem that erupted at the end of 2007 and early 2008.
"We must keep the peace," said William Ruto, after voting early Monday.
Mr. Ruto is running for deputy president as Mr. Kenyatta's running mate, and he has also been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity, accused of orchestrating widespread violence. After the last botched election, Mr. Ruto's supporters killed scores of Kikuyus, the ethnic group of Mr. Kenyatta and Kenya's current president, Mwai Kibaki, who is stepping down because of term limits. Many of Mr. Ruto's supporters were passionate supporters of Mr. Odinga at the time and claimed that the Kikuyus had historically oppressed them and rigged that election.
But in a sign of how pliable political alliances can be, analysts said that Mr. Ruto and Mr. Kenyatta decided to team up this time around to boost their chances of beating the charges at the International Criminal Court. Preliminary election results show that many members of Mr. Ruto's ethnic group, the Kalenjin, voted for Mr. Kenyatta.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Odinga, Kenya's prime minister and a member of the Luo ethnic group, brimmed with confidence as he stepped into a cardboard ballot box in the Kibera slum and cast his vote.
"Today, Kenyans have a date with destiny," he said, predicting he would win.
Kenya is one of the most industrialized and democratic countries in sub-Saharan Africa, a beachhead for Western interests and a close American ally, but its history has been haunted by intense and often violent, ethnically-charged politics. Mr. Odinga, an ethnic Luo, says he was cheated out of winning the election in 2007.
Before Monday, many analysts predicted that neither Mr. Odinga nor Mr. Kenyatta, a deputy prime minister and the son of Kenya's first president, would win more than 50 percent of the vote, mandating a heated runoff in April. There is also a requirement that the winning candidate receive 25 percent of the vote in the majority of Kenya's counties, which, in a country crisscrossed by stubborn ethnic fault lines, could be difficult.
In the Mathare area of Nairobi, the voting resembled an assembly line of democracy. One poll worker verified fingerprints with a computer scanner; another tore ballots from a big pad; and another stamped ballots as voters filed past, one by one, disappearing into cardboard voting booths and then emerging a few minutes later to stuff their ballots into a row of color-coded tubs. All was done quietly and efficiently.
"We are calm," said Mary Mwaura, an election official in Mathare. "We are very ok."
In other places, though, things were bumpy. Many polls opened late, and in some places, perplexed election workers arrived at dawn without the user name or password to start their computers, which spelled long delays. At night, after the polls closed, the results began to flow in, via encrypted data messages, to an election center in Nairobi, the capital, where the numbers were immediately posted on large video screens. Observers said it was a vast improvement over the last election, in which there were huge discrepancies between the results recorded at polling stations and the results then tabulated in Nairobi.
This election is the most complicated Kenya has ever held. A host of new positions has been created, like governorships, senate seats and county woman's representatives, in an attempt to change the winner-take-all nature of Kenyan politics. And Kenyan civic groups have tried mightily to make this an election about issues, not about ethnicity, with countless public service advertisements telling voters to pick candidates based on their integrity and plans.
Still, many people in Kenya vote along ethnic lines, picking a candidate from their ethnic group.
Terry Wamaitha, a vegetable seller and a Kikuyu, boasted of how she voted for Mr. Kenyatta.
When asked if this was for ethnic reasons, she smiled.
"No way," she said. "It's just that he's our boy."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.