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Opinion

Opinion: Kenya's dangerous fault lines

Vote counting is underway in Kenya's election, which is being heralded as one of the most significant since independence. Claus Stäcker, head of DW's Africa services, draws a parallel with South Africa in 1994.

Claus Stäcker verantwortet die Afrika-Programme innerhalb der Multimediadirektion Regionen

Claus Stäcker is the new head of Deutsche Welle's Africa services

Are 22 deaths a sign of a successful election? One has to be something of a cynic to answer this question in the affirmative. Kenya in 2013 is sending quite different signals when compared to Kenya in 2007. But the attacks on Kenya's coast were fierce, prompting one to fear the worst. Deliberately trying to torpedo a democratic election, Mombasa's secessionists fomented violence, thinking only of how they could forward their own narrow cause.

Such scenes do not only evoke memories of the last elections in Kenya, but also of the historic ballot in South Africa almost 20 years ago. Secessionists, right-wing extremists in that particular case, tried to halt the tide of history with bombs. But polling day proved how misguided they were. Voters of every color cast their ballots peacefully, not letting anything or anybody stop them. The rainbow nation was born.

Clearly this was not Kenya's first democratic election, but it was the most transparent and the best prepared. It was also the one that was regarded with the most suspicion. Voters responded positively, with many queuing up to vote in the middle of the night. They waited patiently until their turn came. Some complained because the biometric procedures took too long, they grumbled about power cuts and because voting for president, parliament, senate and governors was more complicated than in the past. But they didn't vent their frustration on others.

In 2007, opaque voting procedures, missing or incorrect ballot papers and serious mistakes in voter registration caused a stirring of unrest at the polling stations. When the result was announced, a violent mob went on the rampage and Raila Odinga raised the specter of ballot-rigging.

This time, too, many were worried. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that the country was teetering on the brink of self-destruction. The attacks in Mombasa were a reminder of the proximity of the abyss. Africa's Rift Valley is well known for its geological fault lines and the continent has equally fateful political divides. Whether chasms open up or not depends on the main players. If Kenya's politicians succeed in putting the national interest before their own personal ambitions, then this election could be a step forward, even a watershed.

Yet with Uhuru Kenyatta in the lead, that would seem unlikely. Kenyatta is a representative of the old system who faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The rule of law must prevail, irrespective of whether somebody was legitimately voted into office or not. This places a weighty burden and a huge responsibility on Kenya's elite. The country cannot afford poor losers, let alone arrogant victors who seek to keep alive the bad traditions of the past. Yet the impossible has already been achieved once before in Kenya with the creation of a government of national unity, albeit belatedly after the loss of some 1200 lives and in the wake of enormous pressure from the international community.

Compromise initially seemed impossible in South Africa in 1994. But the voters with their commitment to peace and democracy were able to force the antagonists to seek reconciliation. That which was possible on the Cape of Good Hope 19 years ago is also conceivable in Kenya in 2013. The coming days and weeks will show how robust Monday's vote was and whether Kenyatta, Odinga and all the others can scale the same the same heights as Mandela and De Klerk.

DW.DE