By Katharine Houreld and Duncan Miriri
NAIROBI (Reuters) – A Kenyan court said on Wednesday an also-ran candidate in August’s presidential elections could contest this month’s re-run, a day after the main opposition leader pulled out.
But the High Court ruling in favour of Ekuru Aukot failed to dispel concerns about how a deepening political crisis would play out, as he said he had doubts about standing while opposition supporters gathered in response to calls to demonstrate for electoral reform.
The repeat election between incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and challenger Raila Odinga was scheduled for Oct. 26, after the Supreme Court annulled the original ballot — in which Kenyatta was declared the winner — due to procedural irregularities.
Odinga said on Tuesday he was withdrawing amid concerns that the re-run would not be free and fair, renewing calls for a new electoral board (IEBC), whose current members he blamed for the irregularities, to be appointed.
Further muddying the political waters, parliament passed an amendment on Wednesday to the country’s election laws, saying that if one candidate withdrew from a repeat presidential election, the other one would automatically win.
Once the president signed it, the law would immediately take effect, said parliamentary spokesman Martin Mutua.
The vote was boycotted by opposition lawmakers.
Tuesday’s declaration by Odinga fed into a mood of unease that has stoked citizens’ fears over a potential descent into violence and blunted growth in East Africa’s richest nation, a long-time ally of the West.
A repeat of the widespread ethnic clashes that killed 1,200 people followed a disputed presidential poll in 2007 appears unlikely at this stage.
But at least 37 people were killed in protests immediately following the vote, almost all of them by police, a Kenyan rights group said Monday. Opposition supporters on Wednesday again demonstrated for changes at the electoral board.
Protesters lit bonfires in Kisumu, an Odinga stronghold in the country’s west, while hundreds of other supporters gathered in the main park in the capital Nairobi.
“We want a reformed IEBC,” said Elisha Odhiambo, an opposition legislator, referring to the electoral board, which has frequently relied on riot police dispersing protests outside its offices in recent weeks.
Aukot told reporters outside the High Court that he still had concerns about the board and would issue a statement in a day or two giving clarity about his plans.
Justice John Mativo said earlier he could “find nothing to bar the petitioner (Aukot) from contesting the fresh election.”
It was unclear if other candidates from the first ballot with little support would also seek to be included, but the election board said it still had time to print ballot papers.
The Sept. 1 Supreme Court judgement that nullified Kenyatta’s 1.4 million vote win also stipulated elections had to be held within 60 days.
If that schedule is not met, the constitution provides for the speaker of parliament, a member of Kenyatta’s party, to take power.
(Additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo and George Obulutsa; editing by John Stonestreet)