By James Macharia
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Alliances forged by Kenya's main presidential contenders for elections in March are lining up a repeat of a largely ethnic-based contest for political power which exploded into bloodshed in the 2007 vote.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's founder president, lead the two main opposing camps for the March 4 presidential and parliamentary elections.
The head-on rivalry between Kenyatta, from the predominant Kikuyu tribe, and Odinga, a Luo, raises the specter of the tribal clashes that followed the 2007 election and killed more than 1,200 people, uprooting thousands more from their homes.
"I don't want to be a pessimist... but, historically, every time the Luo and the Kikuyu have been on different sides there has been violence," said Mzalendo Kibunjia, who heads a national agency formed to reconcile tribes after the violence.
"What do you expect? Our politics are about ethnicity. In Africa, democracy is about ethnic arithmetic not ideology."
Another factor that could lead to post-election instability for East Africa's economic powerhouse is Kenyatta's date a month after the March vote with the International Criminal Court (ICC). The former finance minister faces a trial in the Hague over his alleged role in the election violence five years ago.
Should Kenyatta win the presidency and then travel to the court hearings, a power vacuum could result soon after his inauguration. The ICC accuses him of directing youth from his Kikuyu ethnic community to fight Odinga's Luo kinsmen during the 2007/2008 bloodletting. He denies any wrongdoing.
To win in the March 4 first round, a candidate needs to gain an outright majority from the 14.3 million registered voters. An immediate victory for either contender is not assured, which could then mean a nail-biting run-off in April.
Odinga leads the race according to most opinion polls, but Kenyatta is running close second. The closeness of the political contest is exacerbating the ethnic tensions, and vice-versa.
Kenyan polls since independence from Britain in 1963 have often been marred by tribal violence, typically stemming from long-standing disputes over land. But the bloody feuding after the 2007 vote was by far the worst in Kenya's history.
Luos say Odinga was robbed of victory by the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu in a bitter and close vote. Many Kikuyus argue Odinga's Luo tribe got off easier than they did in the ICC probe of the 2007 events, and so are determined to have the election go their way this time.
There are those who believe the ICC's pursuit of alleged ringleaders of the 2007 killings could act as a deterrent.
"I doubt there will be violence of the scale we witnessed last time. Kenyans are extremely wary of the ICC and its activities in the country," said Ken Wafula, a rights campaigner who works in Rift Valley, epicenter of the clashes.
"Fear of running foul of the ICC will serve as a restraint."
The charges from the war crimes court against Kenyatta, a deputy prime minister and scion of independence hero Jomo Kenyatta, is undoubtedly a hindrance to his presidential bid.
He has teamed up in the Jubilee alliance with former cabinet minister William Ruto, who was indicted with him by the ICC for inciting youth to fight in 2007.
The other men charged are the head of the civil service, Francis Muthaura, and radio presenter Joshua Arap Sang.
Kenyatta's arch-rival Odinga has formed a competing alliance, the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (Cord) backed by Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, to try to break the traditional Kikuyu dominance over the presidency.
Two of Kenya's three presidents since independence have been Kikuyu, the exception being former president Daniel Arap Moi, a Kalenjin like Ruto.
Although Kenyatta and Ruto have insisted they will cooperate with the ICC, most Kenyans do not believe the two will appear at the Hague should they win the election, according to a survey by pollster Ipsos Synovate released in early December.
In a country where the political elite has long been considered above the law, many believe Kenyatta would see becoming president of the nation as a way of spurning the ICC.
They point to the example of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has defied a 2009 ICC indictment for alleged war crimes committed by his forces in the western Darfur region.
A failure by an elected president of Kenya to cooperate with the ICC would concern foreign investors and Western governments, which have urged Kenyan leaders to be tough against impunity.
"This election is one issue: ICC, nothing else," said anti-corruption campaigner and political commentator John Githongo.
Political commentators said Kenyatta, if elected, could end up being afraid to leave his country like Bashir.
Kenya, East Africa's largest economy, and its assets are at risk of a discount similar to the 'Khartoum' one being given by investors to Sudan, said independent analyst Aly Khan Satchu.
In the past three decades, Kenya has had its lowest growth periods in, or just after, election years, the World Bank says.
The government has forecast growth of around 5 percent this year, up from 4.3 percent last year, but any flare-up could affect tourism and investment and regional trade and transport.
"The Jubilee alliance where two ICC indictees have teamed up is entirely problematic," Satchu said.
"Kenya is more deeply embedded and interconnected with the global economy than most African countries and in some respects that alliance is the equivalent of giving the two finger salute to the international community. There will be consequences and particularly economic ones (sanctions)."
Rights groups have also filed a suit at the Kenyan High Court challenging Ruto and Kenyatta's suitability for elective office, given their ICC cases at the Hague.
"GAME OF NUMBERS"
Odinga faces challenges too after falling out with several of his former allies who helped him in the last vote, including deputy prime minister Musalia Mudavadi. This has somewhat weakened his third attempt to win the presidency.
Analysts say much of the campaigning by Odinga and Kenyatta will focus on swing tribes, including Mudavadi's Luhya ethnic community, Kenya's second-largest, to try to tilt the vote.
"This game is a game of numbers. It does not require magic, this is the strategy," says Ruto.
Odinga and Kenyatta's rivalry mirrors an old feud that goes back to when Odinga's father was vice president to Kenyatta's father. They fell out, and Odinga's father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, became a vocal opposition critic of Jomo Kenyatta.
Odinga and Kenyatta have vowed to focus on issues, such as improving the economy, rather than ethnic differences or the ICC issue, to avoid whipping up emotions during the campaigns.
But Kenya is already hurting from violence this year in the coastal east where hundreds have been killed in tribal clashes over land and water, the most recent this week.
Such battles over resources have occurred for years, but human rights groups blame the latest fighting on politicians seeking to drive away parts of the local population they believe will vote for their rivals in the elections.
This is reinforcing the fears of a repeat of the ethnic mayhem that followed the disputed 2007 vote.
"This kind of violence can engulf the entire nation. It takes incitement by leaders preaching hate," Kibunjia said.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Anna Willard)