NAIROBI, Kenya — If the political talk in Jeevanjee Gardens in the business district here is a sign of the future, civil unrest is likely to follow fraught presidential elections slated for late summer.
“We are not going to accept any rigged elections again,” vows Fredrick Onyango, who opposes the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his National Alliance political party. “We are going to demonstrate to ensure the will of the people prevails. The current government has performed very poorly. The cost of living is high. Corruption is rampant.”
Campaigns are kicking off for the August balloting, and many Kenyans worry that this race will be a rerun of the divisive 2007-2008 elections. Accusations of vote-rigging, ethnic and tribal strife and economic duress created a pressure cooker that claimed 1,300 lives and displaced 600,000 people — the worst violence in the country since independence in 1963.
According to polls, 70 percent of Kenyans say they are worried about a repeat of that violence.
Mr. Kenyatta has accused opposition leader Raila Odinga, who fell short in the 2007 and 2013 presidential elections, of planning violent disruptions and tribal strife in the campaign.
“Raila has again started inciting Kenyans as he did in 2007,” Mr. Kenyatta said during a political rally, amid cheers from his supporters. He said Mr. Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement were to blame for the 2008 unrest. “He is the one who ignited the fire. Kenyans are not ready to enter into chaos again because of politics.”
But Mr. Odinga, who served as prime minister for six years after the 2007-2008 vote, said it is the president who is desperately mobilizing his own ethnic voting bloc because he hasn’t delivered on his promises to the electorate since he came to power four years ago.
“The president is looking for something to hang on to to re-energize his depressed 2013 voting bloc,” said Mr. Odinga. “We, however, advise the president to look around his entourage and also look into the mirror if he is interested in the truth on the 2008 violence.”
In 2013, the Kenyan government enacted a series of measures designed to prevent a surge in political violence, including early warning systems that helped officials and aid groups intervene in disputes before they escalated, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute said in a report on the elections. The result was a far more peaceful vote in 2013 than was the case in 2007-2008.
The problem this cycle, the institute’s analysts say, is that those measures haven’t been pursued for the upcoming vote.
“With just days ticking away before the polls crucial challenges to organizing the elections and mitigating potentials for politically motivated violence around the elections must be met,” the group’s report said. “A number of killings and other violence with political implications already have taken place.”
Other troubling signs were the chaos and confusion that accompanied the primaries within Mr. Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party, where an unexpectedly heavy turnout led the party to call off the vote amid a shortage of election materials. The BBC reported long delays, barricaded streets and even some skirmishes at polling stations across Kenya as candidates accused their opponents of rigging.
The party decided to partially call off the vote, Mr. Kenyatta told reporters, “because doing anything to the contrary may have resulted in a subversion of the democratic will of the people.”
Among those worried about the specter of a violent campaign are Kenya’s Catholic bishops, who offered an unusual public statement May 3 expressing concerns that the parties will be unable to organize a “clean and transparent” election.
“The fear of widespread violence erupting cannot be ignored,” Bishop Philip Anyolo, chairman of the bishops’ conference, said in a statement.
“We are already witnessing that communities are beginning to be suspicious of one another, investors are wary of investing in Kenya, foreign tourists and other visitors are cancelling their visits to the country due to security uncertainties, lenders employ a wait-and-see attitude, and the general economy of our country has stalled. Many Kenyans seem to have lost confidence in the capacity of institutions, bodies, individuals and even their own leaders.”
Analysts warn that both candidates have fallen short in addressing a central cause of election violence: that a majority of Kenyans say they vote for their leaders based on tribal affiliation and not political agenda.
“I think Kenya is not a nation; it’s a group of tribes coming together,” said Kenyatta University political scientist Edward Kisiang’ani. “Tribes compete against each other for power and resources so that they can divert resources to their tribes. So if one loses elections, it becomes life and death because the whole tribe has lost.”
In 2008, the postelection violence pitted members of the Kikuyu ethnic group of Mr. Kenyatta and former President Mwai Kibaki against other communities such as the Luo and Kalenjin. The International Criminal Court accused Mr. Kenyatta of organizing an ethnic Kikuyu gang known as the Mungiki sect to attack rival groups. The court later dropped charges against him because of a lack of evidence.
The tribes that support Mr. Kenyatta and those that back Mr. Odinga have maintained that their leaders must win the presidency at all costs, raising fears of bloodshed. The Kikuyu tribe has produced three out Kenya’s four presidents since independence.
“This is the last chance of Raila to become president,” said John Ogola, an Odinga supporter from the Luo tribe. “He is getting old, and he should become president in August. We will not allow the president and his party to rig his elections as they did in 2007 and 2013. We cannot be led only by one tribe.”
With the Kikuyu tribe — Kenya’s largest single ethnic group, but one that makes up just an estimated 20 percent of the total population of 46 million — and the smaller Kalenjin in a political alliance, Mr. Odinga and four other top opposition figures have banded together as the National Super Alliance in hopes of boosting their electoral prospects. The opposition coalition formally nominated Mr. Odinga as its standard-bearer on April 27.
“I am a first among equals,” Mr. Odinga told cheering supporters at a rally in Nairobi’s Uhura Park. “I will be the Joshua who will take you to Canaan.”
But supporters of the ruling party insist they must win a second term for Mr. Kenyatta.
“We are going to win this election and send Raila home,” said Joe Mwangi, a Kenyatta supporter from the Kikuyu tribe. “The president has done a lot for this country in terms of development. He cannot lose.”
Mr. Odinga told his supporters that the opposition will set up a parallel vote tallying system and announce results during the elections to prevent foul play. Malfunctioning electronic ballot-counting equipment has been a perennial concern among opposition groups.
The State Department has warned Americans living in or traveling to Kenya about possible violence at rallies or protests ahead of the Aug. 8 general elections.
“Rallies, demonstrations and protests may occur with little notice and even those intended to be peaceful can escalate into violence,” the State Department said in a travel alert.
Religious leaders are urging politicians to lower the political temperatures and are preaching peace.
“Let’s follow the law and ensure peaceful elections. We need a prosperous nation, not a divided nation after elections,” said Jackson Ole Sapit, archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya.
But his message of peace is falling on deaf ears in both political parties.
“The elections must be free and fair for peace to prevail,” said Mr. Onyango. “If they rig elections, then they should expect violence.”