NAIROBI, Nov 27 (Reuters) - One month before Kenya's presidential election, the European Union called for calm today in an increasingly chaotic and violent campaign.
With President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga running close in opinion polls ahead of the December 27 vote, politics have turned ugly in recent weeks.
Violence has erupted regularly at rallies and several people have been killed in the chaos.
Party primaries earlier this month descended into farce, with some losers even picking up guns to threaten opponents and beating election officials.
And today, police were questioning an assistant minister, Raphael Wanjala, over a weapons haul -- including machetes, clubs, and bows and arrows -- found in a government car assigned to him, local media said.
''It is important that people can exercise their right to vote freely and that candidates are able to campaign in a peaceful, secure environment in which there is a level playing field,'' EU observer team head Alexander Graf Lambsdorff said.
He was speaking at a news conference in Nairobi to launch a 150-person election observer team, one of a posse of foreign missions that will be closely watching the poll.
Traditionally viewed as an oasis of stability compared to many of its war-torn neighbours in the region, Kenya nevertheless has a history of violence at election times.
Kibaki's 2002 victory over the party of former President Daniel arap Moi was not, however, as bad as previous elections, either for violence or rigging.
''Kenya set a high standard for the region with its elections in 2002,'' Lambsdorff added.
''Now it is the responsibility of the leadership in all political parties and the Electoral Commission of Kenya to maintain this standard, and ideally raise it higher.'' The closeness of the race in east Africa's largest economy has heightened the stakes and, analysts say, the potential for trouble.
In the most recent of four separate polls, Odinga, 62, a charismatic former political prisoner and cabinet minister, and one-time ally of Kibaki's, has come out on top overall, with a range of 41.5 to 45.2 per cent.
Kibaki, 76, scored a range of 36.1 to 43.3 percent.
Analysts say it is politicians themselves, motivated by greed for power and tribal instincts, who are knowingly fomenting instability by hiring gangs.
''It is almost an accepted culture in Kenya that politicians, no matter the vileness of their behaviour, avoid prosecution for breaking the law,'' wrote Abdulahi Ahmednassir, a former chairman of the Law Society of Kenya, in a newspaper column.
REUTERS RJ VC1740