Kenya’s main opposition coalition claimed victory Thursday in a contentious presidential election and demanded that its candidate, Raila Odinga, be declared the winner.
Odinga was trailing by more than 1.4 million votes, according to provisional results released by the country’s election commission with 97% of polling stations reporting. But the opposition professed to have obtained internal commission figures showing that its candidate had defeated the incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
There were reports of celebrations in some opposition strongholds. But if Kenyatta is declared the winner, it risks igniting tense protests among Odinga’s supporters in Nairobi’s volatile slum districts and in western parts of the country.
As Kenya faces the prospect of another disputed election, there were fears of a reprise of the ethnic violence that killed an estimated 1,500 people following a similar dispute in 2007.
Sporadic clashes have erupted between police and opposition supporters since Odinga told his followers Wednesday that hackers had manipulated data in the election commission’s computer system.
After years of ethnic tension and public mistrust in Kenya’s elections, an electronic system used to tally the paper votes has become the main bone of contention.
At a news conference Thursday, a senior figure in the opposition National Super Alliance, Musalia Mudavadi, accused the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission of posting results on its website that were at odds with the results contained on its server.
Mudavadi claimed Odinga had won just over 8 million votes, compared with 7.1 million for Kenyatta.
“The accurate and lawful results in the presidential election is the transmission received from the polling stations and contained in the IEBC servers,” he said.
Mudavadi urged opposition supporters to remain calm, saying the alliance would present evidence of its allegations in court.
Odinga, who on Wednesday had said that the opposition might call on its supporters to stage protests, was present at Thursday’s news conference but did not speak to reporters.
Opposition leaders met with the election commission chairman, Wafula Chebukati, on Thursday to demand that it stop posting “unverified results.”
Chebukati, who has promised to investigate any allegations of fraud, admitted there had been a hacking attack, but said it had failed.
After a hard-fought campaign, international observers praised the commission’s handling of the election and urged Kenyans to give members time to complete their work, which will include checking the electronic results against paper records.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, an observer for the Carter Center, said Kenyans could rely on the vote tally forms, which were signed by party agents at the nation’s more than 40,800 polling stations and posted online by the commission, to ensure that the final result was fair.
“It is the paper ballots and the accounting process established by the IEBC that tell the story of this elections, not the electronic transmission of those numbers,” he said.
Although Kerry said the allegations of hacking “deserve to be taken seriously,” he urged Kenyans to resolve their differences in court and not in the streets.
“Any candidate’s legitimate evidence of something that happened needs to be judged, but it needs to be judged through the appropriate process,” Kerry said.
The European Union’s observer team said it had seen no evidence of any attempts to manipulate the results, but added that it was not in a position to investigate claims of hacking or electronic manipulation.
Both Kerry and the head of the EU team, Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, recalled the pain of their own election defeats and urged losing candidates to concede defeat graciously.
Kenya faces entrenched corruption, and its presidential elections tend to be winner-takes-all affairs, producing victors who dole out jobs and favoritism to ethnic allies.
With Kenyatta appearing certain of retaining power, the mistrust of opposition supporters in the system was evident on the commission’s Facebook page.
“Never again will I wake up and go to vote for a predetermined results [sic],” wrote one angry voter. “I will never ever ever ever ever associate with an electoral body in Kenya. Neither will I advise my children to vote.”
Others, apparently supporters of Kenyatta, urged the commission to announce the result immediately, so they could start celebrating.
One worried commentator said Kenyans shouldn’t allow politicians to divide them.
“As a developing nation, we have come a long way. Instead of bashing IEBC, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and encourage them,” the Facebook user wrote. “They’re all we have. This is our country. We have no other motherland.”
12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with the opposition’s claim of victory and additional staff reporting
This article was originally published at 9 a.m.