Violence, confusion mar Kenyan party primaries

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NAIROBI, Nov 17 (Reuters) Violence and confusion marred party primaries to pick candidates for Kenya's Dec 27 parliamentary election and at least seven people were shot, local media reported today.

From the Indian Ocean coast to the hills by Lake Victoria, chaos reigned at many of the primaries yesterday ahead of the poll due to be held on the same day as the east African country's presidential election.

That race is shaping up to be the closest ever in the region's biggest economy, with three opinion polls today showing President Mwai Kibaki closing in on his nearest rival.

Yesterday, ballot materials and polling officials arrived hours late for many primaries, if at all, and numerous fights broke out.

In an editorial headlined ''Nominations fiasco shame for parties'', the Saturday Nation said the primaries highlighted major failings on all sides.

''Reports from most places indicated that the parties were not prepared ... But the worst scenario was the violence witnessed,'' it said, denouncing political clashes in Teso, Thika and Kisumu towns, and in the capital Nairobi.

''These were just but a few cases ... the parties must re-examine themselves and clean their houses if they want to be trusted as agents of democracy.'' ''NATIONAL DISGRACE'' Calling the chaos a ''national disgrace'', the Saturday Standard published front-page pictures of the brother of one Nairobi aspirant beating and kicking a rival, while two men wielding sticks and another brandishing a machete looked on.

Armed militia shot and wounded three party agents, three policemen and a driver in turbulent Mount Elgon region, it said, while ballot papers were stolen or destroyed by mobs who stormed several other polling stations across the country.

For the first time, Kenyan election chiefs had ordered that party primaries be held on the same day to stop unsuccessful candidates switching allegiances if they failed to secure their party's nomination.

The race for the presidency is also heating up. Three new opinion polls published in the Saturday Nation newspaper showed Kibaki broadly gaining on his main rival Raila Odinga.

The Strategic Research poll gave Odinga 49 per cent to Kibaki's 38 per cent, almost unchanged, while Infotrak Harris had Odinga on 47.3 per cent to Kibaki's 37 per cent -- indicating a big jump in support for the president since last week.

The third weekly poll, by Consumer Insight, had Kibaki overtaking Odinga with 41.4 percent to 40.7 per cent for the first time since the polls were first published eight weeks ago.

Kibaki has vowed to build on advances in education, employment and the fight against corruption if re-elected for another five years in State House.

Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), is painting himself as a champion of the poor and the alternative to a government he says has failed to deliver its 2002 election pledge to stamp out endemic graft.

REUTERS PD BD1718

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