NAIROBI, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Kenya plunged deeper into crisis on Wednesday after a no-show by a majority of Supreme Court judges scuppered an eleventh-hour petition to delay a presidential election and the governor of a volatile opposition region endorsed rebellion against the state.
Within minutes of Supreme Court chief justice David Maraga announcing that five judges had failed to turn up, preventing a quorum, hundreds of supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga took to the streets of Kisumu, his main stronghold.
Riot police used teargas to disperse them. One protester had a gunshot wound to the buttocks, a Reuters witness said.
Odinga successfully challenged the outcome of an initial ballot in August, which he had lost, in the same court.
“We were expecting Maraga to cancel (Thursday’s) elections. This means the push for postponement of the election is on,” said George Mbija, a motorcycle taxi driver in the western city.
“As we wait for Raila to give us the direction, the status quo remains: No reforms, No election.”
The opposition leader has called on loyalists to boycott Thursday’s vote, because he said the election board’s failure to institute reforms means it will be neither free nor fair.
Kisumu governor Anyang Nyong’o, a hardline Odinga supporter, went a step further.
“If the government subverts the sovereign will of the people ... then people are entitled to rebel against this government,” Nyong’o told reporters in Kisumu.
Such comments seem certain to fuel fears of a major confrontation with security forces, already blamed for killing nearly 50 people in Kisumu and Nairobi slums after the cancelled August vote.
For some in East Africa’s economic powerhouse, the instability has rekindled memories of large-scale ethnic violence that killed 1,200 people following a disputed election in 2007.
Shoppers crammed into Nairobi’s upmarket Carrefour supermarket to stock up on food, said Jason Straziuso, who had to wait nearly two hours to pay for his groceries.
“There was about 40 carts per register, everyone was jockeying for position trying to find the shortest line,” he said. “Every single cart was as full as it could be.”
President Uhuru Kenyatta, who won the annulled election by 1.4 million votes, has made clear he wants the re-run to go ahead. With the Supreme Court - the only institution that can delay it - unable to meet, it appears he will get his way.
“God is great! The evil schemes to deny Kenyans the right to vote kesho (tomorrow) have failed. WE WILL DECIDE and move our country forward tomorrow,” Deputy President William Ruto said in a tweet.
In his announcement on live television, chief justice Maraga said one judge was unwell, another was abroad and another was unable to attend after her bodyguard was shot and injured on Tuesday night. It was unclear why the others were absent.
The head of the election board, Wafula Chebukati, said that the polls would proceed.
“The elections, as scheduled, will go on tomorrow. All polling stations will open tomorrow at 6 a.m.” he said.
“In cases where there will be problems (delivering materials) ... the polling officer will have the right to inform us and polling can be suspended to another day.”
In the capital Nairobi, thousands of opposition supporters converged on Uhuru Park, waiting for Odinga to give a speech in which he was to outline his strategy for election day.
“RECIPE FOR CHAOS”
In a related ruling, High Court Judge George Odunga said some local election officials had been appointed in an irregular manner, but to withdraw them at the last minute would only make an already dire situation worse.
“For the elections to proceed in the absence of the said officers would in my view be a constitutional crisis of unimaginable magnitude. Simply put, it would be a recipe for chaos.”
However, he admitted that not dismissing them could form the grounds for legal challenges afterwards. The Supreme Court has said it is prepared to annul the re-run, and send the country of 45 million back to square one, if the election does not meet the required standards.
Opposition lawyers seeking to challenge Thursday’s vote could also cite the failure of the election board to hold elections in all parts of the country, if enough polling stations are unable to open.
In Kisumu, returning officer John Ngutai said attacks by opposition supporters last week meant the election board had only managed to train 250 out of 1,300 staff they needed to hold the election in his constituency.
“Our trainings were disrupted and officials attacked, so some people withdrew,” he said.
Both the European Union and the Carter Center, an election-monitoring group run by former President Jimmy Carter, have said they will reduce their monitoring missions due to the rising tensions.
Foreign observers - which declared the August polls free and fair - were criticised by the opposition for focusing on the voting rather than the tallying process led by the election board IEBC.
“The current political impasse constrains the IEBC’s ability to conduct a credible election,” the Carter Center said. “There is a serious risk of election-related violence should the elections go forward.”
(Additional reporting by Maggie Fick, David Lewis and John Ndiso; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Robin Pomeroy)