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With many voters discouraged, turnout was low for Kenya's presidential election

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Kenya has long been a great hope for democracy in a region full of authoritarian governments. But today's presidential election between establishment candidates was marked by low turnout and a great deal of cynicism. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Even before the sun peeks out from the horizon, hundreds of voters line up at a polling station in Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF VUVUZELA HONKING)

PERALTA: Some have camped out here since 3 a.m. So when the polls open at 6, they use whistles and vuvuzelas to celebrate. Francis Onyango Lucas, who is 78, put on his fanciest white suit to come to vote for a new president. Kenya's longtime opposition leader, Raila Odinga, is running against the current deputy president, William Ruto.

FRANCIS ONYANGO LUCAS: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: Elections, he says, are how you build a nation. This is one of the most romanticized images of Kenyan elections. It happens every five years. Voters are seen using flashlights to pore over the voter roll. They wait in long lines. They persevere, even through violence.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: At another precinct less than a mile away, it's quiet. The lines are modest when in past years they had stretched for blocks. I hear enthusiasm from some, but I also hear a lot of resignation. Peter Migosi says he wishes he was voting for change. But the history of Kenya has taught him otherwise.

PETER MIGOSI: In Kenya, looking for a change is like looking for a gold in the sea.

PERALTA: It's impossible.

MIGOSI: It's impossible.

PERALTA: Kenya has been a bellwether for democracy in East Africa. A dictatorship gave way to elections in the early 2000. But since then, presidential contests have been marred by violence and irregularities. Wandia Njoya, one of Kenya's leading intellectuals, says this is the first time she's not invested in a presidential campaign.

WANDIA NJOYA: No, no. I don't believe in elections anymore. I think it's people who have to fight for what they want.

PERALTA: She says Kenyans have long known that their politicians are corrupt and self-centered, but they always believed elections could change things. But in 2017, the international community hailed the elections as free and fair, and then Kenya's Supreme Court found that they had been massively rigged. Instead of fixing the problems pointed out by the court, the government reacted violently, crushing dissent and ramming through new elections that had no real credibility. Njoya says that's when she decided that the solutions to Kenya were not through elections but through civic engagement.

NJOYA: It became clear that the elections are not ours. Like Kenyans say, (speaking Swahili). Kenya has its owners.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Swahili).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: Even before polls close, life returns to normal on the streets of Mathare, a big slum in Nairobi. Kids jump rope. Hens take a walk with their chicks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKS CHIRPING)

PERALTA: Sam Papa, who is 27, didn't leave his store all day. He sells coal, so the years of soot have left the walls and ceiling of his store black as a night sky.

SAM PAPA: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: He says every election period, politicians drop off money and promises. But after the elections, nothing changes. At the moment, he says, his neighbors can't afford the basics.

PAPA: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: They vote, he says, because the Constitution demands it. But in the end, he knows that Kenyans are on their own. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "TIME FEAT. JACK HARLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.