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Vote tests Kenya's democracy

Thursday's tight presidential race is a rarity in Africa, where one-party rule is the norm.

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As Kenyans go to the polls Thursday, there will be more at stake than just choosing their next leader. They may be setting new standards for democracy on the continent.

Just five years after voting out a strong-armed president who had reigned for 24 years, Kenyans now face a tight race between two equally strong parties, a rarity in Africa where one-party states are the norm.

With one poll showing populist opposition leader Raila Odinga just three points ahead of the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, however, Kenyan observers warn that the losing party is almost certain to contest the results.

"This is a test of multiparty democracy," says Njeri Kabeberi, executive director of the Center for Multiparty Democracy in Nairobi. No vote in Kenya is completely free of violence, but this election "is between two good guys saying, 'I can lead,' " he says. "The battle will be over where my interests as a Kenyan will be better represented."

For most Kenyan voters, elections are less about issues and policies and more about personalities and ethnic communities. And in Kibaki and Odinga, both former allies in the fight to topple Kenyan strongman President Daniel Arap Moi, Kenyans have two very different men to choose from.

The technocrat vs. the populist

President Kibaki served as a minister in Mr. Moi's government before setting up his own separate opposition party. In power, Kibaki has projected himself as pro-business, rolling out a series of reforms that revived industries both in urban areas and in rural farming communities. But critics also point out that Kibaki failed to reign in corruption, and to rewrite the Moi-era constitution that gives broad powers to the president.

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