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Kenyans prayed for peace Sunday as they waited anxiously for the final outcome of a tight presidential race, with the two frontrunners neck and neck, according to partial official results.
As of Sunday morning, Deputy President William Ruto had scored 51.25 percent of the vote, reversing earlier gains for his main rival Raila Odinga, who had 48.09 percent, according to data from the election commission covering nearly 50 percent of constituencies.
Tuesday's vote passed off largely peacefully but after previous elections sparked deadly violence and rigging claims, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is under intense pressure to deliver a clean poll and release results by 16 August.
Riot police were deployed overnight inside the commission's heavily-guarded tallying centre in the Kenyan capital Nairobi after political party agents disrupted the process, hurling rigging allegations at each other.
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The commission's chairman Wafula Chebukati has accused party agents of delaying the tallying process by haranguing election workers with unnecessary questions.
More than a dozen civil society groups, trade unions as well as the Kenyan chapters of Amnesty International and Transparency International issued a statement Sunday urging calm.
"We call on all political candidates, their supporters and the public to exercise restraint. We must all avoid raising tensions that could easily trigger violence," the group of 14 organisations said.
The poll pitted Odinga, a veteran opposition leader now backed by the ruling party, against Ruto, who was widely expected to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta until his boss joined hands with former foe Odinga in a dramatic shift of political allegiances.
'Let us have peace'
Both candidates have pledged to maintain calm, with the memory of the 2007-08 and 2017 post-poll violence still fresh for many Kenyans.
At a church service in Nairobi on Sunday, Odinga, 77, recited the opening lines of the Peace Prayer of St Francis and said: "I want to become an instrument to bring peace, to heal, to unite and keep the hope alive in our country."
Congregants in Odinga's stronghold of Kisumu also prayed for a peaceful outcome, with 81-year-old bishop Washington Ogonyo Ngede telling his flock: "Don't let politics divide us. We must remain united."
"Because leaders come and go but the country of Kenya lives forever," said Ngede, a lifelong friend of the Odinga family.
"Let us have peace," he said to cheers and ululations from the gathering of some 300 worshippers.
Kenyans voted in six elections, choosing a new president as well as senators, governors, lawmakers, women representatives and some 1,500 county officials.
Lawyer David Mwaure -- one of the four presidential candidates, along with former spy George Wajackoyah -- conceded on Sunday, endorsing Ruto, whose party won a key gubernatorial race when Johnson Sakaja secured control of Nairobi, Kenya's richest city.
'Model for the continent'
The election is being closely watched by an international community that views Kenya as a pillar of stability in a volatile region, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken describing the country's polls "as a model for the continent".
"We encourage peace and patience as the vote tallying continues from the August 9 elections," Blinken said on Twitter late Saturday.
Turnout was about 65 percent, much lower than the 78 percent recorded in 2017, a reflection, some observers say, of the disenchantment with the political elite, particularly among young people.
The winner of the presidential race needs to secure 50 percent plus one vote and at least a quarter of the votes in 24 of Kenya's 47 counties.
If not, the country will be forced to hold a runoff within 30 days of the original vote.
Observers say that with the race so close, an appeal to the Supreme Court by the losing candidate is almost certain, meaning it could be many weeks before a new president takes office.
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