What Is Going On With Kenya's Chaotic Presidential Election?

Supporters of National Super Alliance (NASA) presidential candidate Raila Odinga gesture, chant "No Election!" and hold branches, boards and rocks, during a demonstration calling for the boycott of the upcoming elections in Kisumu, Kenya, on October 25. JENNIFER HUXTA/AFP/Getty

Updated | Kenya is East Africa's economic powerhouse, an important U.S. counterterrorism partner, and has for years been held up as an example of democracy in a region plagued by presidents-for-life and political instability.

But now, the country appears to be on the verge of chaos as a row over its general election threatens to escalate into mass demonstrations and, potentially, violence.

Didn't Kenya already have its election?

Yes. Kenya held general elections on August 8, including a presidential poll that pitted incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta against longtime political opponent Raila Odinga. Three days later, the country's electoral commission declared Kenyatta had won with 54.3 percent of the vote, ahead of Odinga with 44.7 percent.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta speaks during his political rally in Nairobi ahead of the repeat elections, on October 23. SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty

So what happened?

Kenyatta accepted the results and the election was widely viewed as credible by international observers, but Odinga cried foul. The opposition leader initially claimed the electoral commission's electronic servers had been hacked, and later alleged the electronic transmission of voting forms from polling stations to the commission's central database had failed and seven million votes went missing.

On September 1, the Supreme Court sided with the opposition and nullified the result of the election, ordering a rerun to be held within 60 days. The decision was the first time ever in Africa that a court had annulled a presidential election and it was hailed as a sign of the judiciary's independence. The results of the parliamentary and local elections were not affected by the ruling.

Judges stand to deliver their verdict at the Supreme Court, ordering a new presidential election within 60 days after cancelling after cancelling the results of last month's poll, in Nairobi, Kenya, on September 1. SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty

So when is the election rerun?

The date for the rerun was initially set for October 17, but was later pushed back to October 26. Odinga demanded the electoral commission—known as the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)—must reform to fix the "irregularities" that affected the first poll before a rerun could be held.

On October 10, Odinga announced he was withdrawing from the October 26 vote, claiming the IEBC had failed to sufficiently reform and that the second vote "will be worse than the previous one."

Kenya's opposition leader Raila Odinga of the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition gestures to supporters during a political rally in Machakos, 37 miles east of Nairobi on October 24. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty

The strategy appeared to aim at forcing the IEBC to delay the election, giving time for reforms to be instituted. But Kenyatta has said he is willing to press ahead with the poll and on Wednesday—the eve of the rerun—a last-minute appeal to block the election rerun was not heard by the Supreme Court after only two of the court's seven judges turned up for the hearing.

What are the main candidates saying?

After the August 8 result was annulled, Kenyatta initially branded the Supreme Court judges "crooks" and vowed to "fix" Kenya's judiciary if he was re-elected. But the incumbent has since changed his tune and has called for people to be allowed to vote peacefully in the rerun. "We are warning anyone who will be tempted to block Kenyans from exercising their democratic right to vote will be dealt with according to the law," he said at a rally in Nairobi on Monday. "We do not want to see Kenyans shedding blood because of politics."

Odinga, on the other hand, has called on his supporters to boycott Thursday's election. The opposition leader has consistently stated the rerun would not produce credible results and he is scheduled to make a "big announcement" on Wednesday afternoon.

Is there a potential for violence?

Kenya descended into violence following a disputed 2007 election, which saw incumbent Mwai Kibaki challenged by Odinga. Large-scale ethnic violence raged for two months and killed some 1,200 people before a coalition government was created, with Kibaki as president and Odinga as prime minister.

Now, some observers are raising fears that the country could be on the brink of another bloodbath. Security forces have been blamed for killing almost 50 people since the annulment of the August vote, according to Reuters. And while Odinga has not called for violence, some of his supporters have used incendiary rhetoric ahead of Thursday's poll.

"If the government subverts the sovereign will of the people...then people are entitled to rebel against this government," Anyang Nyong'o, the governor of Kisumu—an opposition stronghold—said on Wednesday.

The U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, was the lead signatory on a statement signed by 20 foreign ambassadors and commissioners that urged Kenya's politicians to "engage in serious dialogue with the IEBC and to cease any interference in its operation." The statement also urged security forces to use "minimum force" in dealing with protesters and called for an end to attacks on IEBC commissioners. A senior member of the IEBC, Roselyn Akombe, fled to the United States last week, saying that she feared for her life and that Thursday's election would likely not be credible.

This article originally stated that Odinga had called on his supporters to protest during the election rerun. Odinga says he has actually called on his supporters to boycott the election, not protest during it.