Kenya's Kibaki dissolves parliament in poll countdown

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NAIROBI, Oct 22 (Reuters) Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki today dissolved parliament, starting the countdown to what could be the closest election in east Africa's biggest economy.

''In an exercise of the powers conferred upon me ... I hereby dissolve the ninth parliament of the Republic of Kenya,'' Kibaki said in a televised speech.

Kenya's electoral commission will within the next 10 days set a date for the vote -- widely expected to be in December.

Kibaki is hoping to clinch a second five-year term, but opinion polls show him trailing opposition candidate and former ally Raila Odinga.

Three new surveys yesterday gave Raila a strong lead, ranging from 43 to 52 percent, versus Kibaki's 31-38 per cent.

Kibaki, 75, is widely applauded for providing free primary education, opening up democratic space and reviving the battered economy he inherited from predecessor Daniel arap Moi in 2002.

But Odinga, a wealthy former political prisoner who projects himself as a champion of the poor, accuses the president of failing to tackle tribalism and rampant corruption.

The recent defection of two government ministers to the Odinga camp has boosted his campaign to become Kenya's fourth president since independence from Britain in 1963.

Under the constitution, the next parliament must convene within three months of the dissolution of the existing assembly.

REUTERS SG VC1924

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