Opposition Headed for Big Win in Landmark Kenyan Elections

Veteran politician and former finance minister Mwai Kibaki seemed headed for a landslide victory in presidential elections in Kenya on Saturday, apparently breaking the ruling party's 39-year grip on power in this East African nation.

Kibaki, a 71-year-old economist who ran for president twice before in the 1990s, had 65 percent of the vote, an independent monitoring group said, based on an unofficial count of nearly a third of the ballots. He easily led outgoing President Daniel arap Moi's hand-picked candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, who had 28 percent.

"The Kenyan people have now spoken, and it is with great joy and humility that we accept their trust," said Raila Odinga, a leader of Kibaki's National Rainbow Coalition, which also made large gains in concurrent parliamentary elections.

If Kibaki wins, it would be Kenya's first transfer of power from one party to another since Moi's Kenyan African National Union, or KANU, took over after the country gained independence from Britain in 1963.

Kibaki has promised free primary education to the struggling nation of 30 million people, half of whom live on less than a $1 a day. He has also pledged to rid the country of the widespread corruption that has kept foreign investors at bay and plunged Kenya into its worst economic crisis since independence.

In Kenya's second largest city, Mombasa, jubilant Kibaki supporters danced and chanted in the streets of the Indian Ocean port.

"I am feeling excited because it is the will of the people, and people have looked for a change. I hope to experience a change in my lifestyle and for fellow Kenyans as well," said Joseph Makero.

Kibaki, who injured an arm and an ankle in a recent car accident

Moi has promised to hand over power to whomever is declared the winner. "As long as Kenyans are united ... I am satisfied," he said after receiving an official farewell from the armed forces on Saturday.

Kibaki was a founding member of KANU in the 1960s and was the country's longest standing finance minister from 1969 to 1982 -- a period of relative prosperity.

He was also vice president from 1978 until Moi fired him in 1988. Neither Kibaki nor Moi has talked openly about the split, but observers say Moi questioned Kibaki's loyalty. Kibaki founded his own political group in 1991 when the constitution was amended to introduce a return to a multiparty system.

Moi, who is also KANU chairman, handpicked the politically inexperienced Kenyatta, 41, to be the party's standard bearer. Moi was constitutionally obliged to step down at the end of his current five-year term.

One of Africa's last "big men," the 78-year-old has presided over Kenya for the last 24 years.

The U.S. State Department said both the government and opposition deserved credit for the conduct of the election.

"We have great hope that this demonstration of Kenyan democracy will lead toward economic reform and greater prosperity for the Kenyan people," it said in a statement.

Out of 210 parliamentary constituencies, Rainbow Coalition candidates captured 78 of the 108 that have returned results so far, according to the Institute for Education in Democracy, an independent monitoring body funded by international donors.

Moi's party had won 21, while the other nine were split between smaller parties, the institute said.

The Electoral Commission, which has been accused of incompetence, said the coalition had won in 43 of the 55 constituencies for which it had results. KANU won 10 of the seats.

The commission would not say when the winner will be named. The commission said it had not yet calculated a turnout figure.

A number of senior KANU officials seemed likely to lose their seats, including Vice President Musalia Mudavadi and Internal Security Minister Julius Sunkuli.

"I think the results reflect the wishes of Kenyans, people who have been yearning for change for a long time," said Eliphas Nyamogo, a 29-year-old teacher. "People voted for change because they are tired of the current system, they had no trust in KANU portraying themselves as new. We were not just voting for Kibaki, but for the whole team ... it offers so much potential for our country."

With a little more than a year of government experience, Kenyatta argued that he represented change and a new generation of leadership. But he appeared unable to shed KANU's notoriety for corruption and cronyism.

Instead, they opted for Kibaki's experience and the promise of fresh start.

Kibaki's coalition united more than 10 opposition parties -- which in the past were hopelessly divided along tribal lines -- and includes a number of former senior KANU members who defected in the months leading up to Friday's vote.

If Kibaki does win, he faces the daunting task or revitalizing East Africa's largest and most important economy and keeping the alliance together.

"Certainly he has got more going for him in terms of sentiment and goodwill than Moi, but on the other hand, he has inherited a most horrendous legacy, particularly the economy," said businessman Robert Shaw.

There is no prescribed transition process in Kenya, but Odinga told reporters Kibaki would be inaugurated Monday if he has officially been declared winner by then.