Today Kenyans go to the polls in the first elections since Kenya adopted a new constitution in 2010 and the first to be held using biometric voter registration.

Overshadowing the elections is the current International Criminal Court (ICC) case concerning the more than 1000 deaths that followed the previous presidential elections in 2007. No charges followed as no criminal investigation was even held. Accordingly, Kofi Annan, who had been brought into Kenya to resolve the impasse between the two key presidential contenders, handed over his files to the ICC. In early 2012, the ICC confirmed the charges against four of the six men summonsed as key perpetrators of the post-election violence — indicted for crimes against humanity — with their cases due to be heard in the coming months.

Of the four indicted Kenyans, two — one from each “side” in the 2007-08 conflict — had been busily jockeying for advantage in their 2013 presidential ambitions. However, just before nominations closed in December, Uhuru Kenyatta (Deputy Prime Minister and son of Kenya’s founding father, Jomo Kenyatta) and William Ruto (Education Minister) formed a convenient alliance, with Kenyatta as presidential candidate and Ruto as vice-presidential candidate.

The other main presidential contender is Raila Odinga, current Prime Minister and the person who claimed to have been denied the presidency in 2007 with the pronounced re-election of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki. Much of the machinations appear motivated by ensuring that he is again denied the presidency (it’s his third attempt), primarily due to ethnic/tribal divisions.

Last Monday night, the second of two presidential debates was broadcast on national TV, featuring all eight candidates. Kenyatta had decided to not appear the second time due to what he claimed was an unfair focus on his ICC charges in the first debate. At the last moment he relented, but he was uncharacteristically quiet during the debate, which this time focused on two issues that made him just as vulnerable — land ownership and corruption. His family is reputed to own enormous swathes of Kenyan land, and the family owns five-star hotels, airlines and commercial farms.

Whilst the six male presidential candidates with government posts each countered accusations of corruption in the TV debate, the one female candidate (Martha Karua, who resigned as justice minister in 2009 claiming presidential interference in fulfilling her duties) had to endure the “equal time” for questioning by the other men as to why she didn’t do more to tackle (presumably their collective) corruption while she was a minister.

The unlikely may happen, and Kenyans will be told that either Odinga or Kenyatta has received the requisite 50%+1 of the votes plus a minimum 25% voter support in at least 24 of Kenya’s 47 new counties.  But more likely there will have to be a presidential election runoff.

The sticking point here is the intensely tribal character of Kenyan politics. This has been tragically evident in the past year, with an estimated 495 people killed and 116,000 displaced due to political/tribal inter-communal conflicts. In late January, I listened to the head of Kenya’s police brief senior UN officers on election preparations. He assured the gathering that plans were in place and the police were well prepared. When asked about the curious fact that not one person has been charged for any of the politically linked killings over the past year, he explained that the matters were complex and investigations were continuing. (Immediately following the worst violence, in which an estimated 116 people were killed in the eastern Tana River District over a three-week period in August/September 2012 — more than half of whom were women and children — an MP was arrested and charged with incitement but released after payment of money.)

Meanwhile, neighbouring countries — especially the landlocked ones such as Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi — are once again anxious at the possibility of widespread chaos across Kenya.  Their dependence upon Kenya’s major port in Mombasa is once again about to be tested.  And Somalia’s current quiet steady progress due to the African Union intervention there (that included Kenya over the past year) and its election in September 2012 of an impressive new President is also at risk, especially whilst Kenya continues to host close to half a million Somali refugees and displaced people.

On the ICC hearings, Odinga has said he will press for the cases to be transferred to Kenyan jurisdiction if elected. Kenyatta and Ruto have claimed that they will cooperate with the ICC, asserting no risks to Kenya’s leadership from their protracted absence from Kenya in the Hague if their campaign is successful. (They will instead, of course, argue a popular mandate against the ICC cases proceeding, in the interest of national harmony.) Mid-last week, a key witness was dropped by the ICC prosecutor because he had allegedly accepted a bribe from “Kenyatta men” not to testify against Kenyatta and his co-accused. Kenyatta’s response was that the prosecution’s case is “unravelling” and the charges against him should be dropped.

There is a lot at stake today, with strong potential for violence regardless of the outcome. Over the course of the past week, many Kenyans told me that last Sunday’s large gathering in Uhuru Park in Nairobi to pray for peace — at which all presidential candidates pledged to support peaceful elections — gave them confidence that all would be well. Unfortunately, those at Uhuru Park praying for peace are unlikely to be the same Kenyans who have, over the past year, been hoarding enormous caches of firearms and other weapons.

*Robert Johnson writes from a personal perspective and his views and aren’t endorsed by the UN.