Ahead in polls, Kenya opposition launches election bid

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NAIROBI, Oct 6 (Reuters) Tens of thousands of dancing and chanting opposition supporters swamped the Kenyan capital today in a show of support for presidential candidate and current pre-election opinion poll leader Raila Odinga.

Having just overtaken incumbent President Mwai Kibaki in polls for the first time ahead of the December election, Odinga was to formally launch the campaign of his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) in a Nairobi park.

Four surveys in recent days have given Raila, a charismatic former political prisoner, between 47 and 43 per cent ratings, versus Kibaki's range of 42-34, in the race for stewardship of east Africa's largest economy.

From early morning, thousands of ODM supporters poured into Nairobi on buses and foot, decked in orange, all weaving their way towards Uhuru (Freedom) Park. City-centre traffic was disrupted by youths dancing in the street.

''It's time for change, and no one can stop us. Kikuyus, go home to your farms!'' shouted one excited youth George Kaseje, dancing in the street.

Kibaki comes from Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu, and many perceive the opposition party as an alliance against it from other ethnic groups, particularly the Luo and Luyha.

An attempt to hold a similar opposition rally in Nairobi last week was stopped because of security fears. today, police kept a discreet watch on proceedings in case of the sort of violence that often plagues Kenyan rallies at election time.

Kibaki, 75, was holding an alternative rally near Kenya's third town Nakuru, in the Rift Valley north of Nairobi.

ECONOMIC GROWTH The president is hoping his record of healthy economic growth, provision of free primary education, and promises of continuity will win over voters.

But he gets lower marks from Kenyans for failing to stamp out corruption and tribalism, and not delivering on some promises like re-writing the constitution in 100 days.

''Kibaki is too old and corrupt to run a country,'' said opposition supporter James Olumese, 39, at the rally.

Odinga, who projects himself as a champion of the poor despite being a rich businessman, was an ally of Kibaki's, helping him win power, then serving him in cabinet until a falling out over a referendum in 2005.

While very different in personality and style, analysts say Odinga and Kibaki would, however, differ little in policy substance.

Odinga, 62, has toned down his firebrand image this year to present himself as a business-friendly leader.

''I don't think Raila would be much different,'' said Nairobi University politics lecturer Chweya Ludeki, noting that global norms would dictate against any radical swing in policy.

''The structural constraints following on from globalisation and so on don't leave a president much leverage.'' Ludeki said Odinga's surge in polls -- after Kibaki had held the lead in popularity since taking power in 2002 -- was a genuine reflection of national sentiment, although fuelled by massive media coverage for ODM in recent months.

But all analysts warn that polls can fluctuate strongly in Kenya's often fast-shifting political scene.

The opposition received a boost yesterday when Health Minister Charity Ngilu said she would be backing Odinga.

REUTERS SKB PM1525

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