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Under pressure, Kenyan election official takes leave before new vote

Posted October 20, 2017 5:31 a.m. EDT

— A top Kenyan election official is taking time off when Kenya goes to the polls next week -- the latest in a series of developments in the country's election crisis days before a new presidential vote.

Ezra Chiloba, chief executive officer of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, said he is going on vacation starting Monday -- three days before the election. He will be gone for three weeks, according to Andrew Limo, a commission spokesman. Chiloba has been under pressure from the opposition party, which demanded that he step down.

Kenyans are scheduled to vote for President -- once again -- on Thursday.

It's the second presidential election in about two months. President Uhuru Kenyatta won the first in August with 54% of the vote against longtime opposition leader Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance.

After his loss, Odinga turned to Kenya's Supreme Court, accusing the election commission of manipulating the vote in favor of the incumbent.

The high court ruled the vote was flawed and invalidated it, leading to this month's new election date.

Odinga later withdrew from the race and accused the electoral commission of being biased against him.

Kenya remains on edge as campaigning has grown more heated and the front-runners more defiant before the vote.

Opposition supporters have clashed with police, and the government has banned demonstrations in certain areas.

Tumultuous week

Chiloba's vacation plans cap a tumultuous week for the electoral commission.

Wafula Chebukati, Kenya's electoral commission chief, warned Wednesday that he had no faith the country would deliver a free and fair presidential election. He pointed to political leaders as the greatest threat to a credible vote.

Chebukati called for these leaders to meet and discuss issues around the new election.

"I want to issue a stern warning to the players of both sides to stop intentions to interfere in the process," he said at a news conference.

"If we don't cap this mess, I fear for the future."

Shortly before Chebukati's comments, a senior member of the electoral commission, Roselyn Akombe, resigned over security fears and fled to New York.

Akombe described the electoral commission as "under siege" and said it could not guarantee a credible election next week.

Fellow commissioners had become increasingly partisan, she said, coming to meetings "ready to vote along party lines."

President: Vote will go on

Odinga maintains he will not be part of the election, saying his coalition does not want to "facilitate another rigging of elections."

None of the issues that led to the annulment of the first vote were resolved, he said.

He urged the replacement of some electoral commission personnel, among other changes.

But the President has said the new election will be held "in line with the Constitution and the Supreme Court ruling" -- with or without Odinga.

"The same way you will be exercising your democratic right in boycotting the election, there are millions of Kenyans -- who do not make noise like you but are waiting for October 26 to vote, and you cannot deny them their right," Kenyatta told the opposition in a statement Thursday.

The continued uncertainty has raised fears of wider unrest in the East African nation, where hundreds were killed in post-election violence between 2007 and 2008.