MANDERA, Kenya (Reuters) - Election time, and a bus ambles across the sand, dodging potholes and rattling plastic milk-containers on its roof as it slowly comes into view. The capital letters on its side spell out a single name: Lampard.
Neither of the two main candidates in Kenya’s December 27 election can match the exposure here of soccer stars like Frank Lampard, the English player whose gaudy image is sprayed on the bus.
Opinion polls show just three or four percentage points separate Mwai Kibaki, the president seeking re-election, and opposition front-runner Raila Odinga: Kenya faces one of the closest votes seen in a major African democracy in recent times.
Yet in the sparse villages of this largely nomadic and Muslim people, political parties are often upstaged by signs and T-shirts for English soccer teams including Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea.
This is not just because politics seem distant in this forgotten region of the east African nation, where people here are so cut off they ask visitors: “How’s Kenya?”
With only 14 million of Kenya’s population of 36 million eligible to vote, it also reflects how both candidates belong to a class many feel offers little hope of real change for the poor. And policy has taken a back seat to tribalism and power-play in the campaign.
The women queuing under thorn-trees at a charity feeding- centre -- the bright colors of their hijabs and gowns sharpened in the mid-morning sun -- are bemused at talk of politics. How to fill mouths is their overriding concern.
“Election? I don’t know anything about that. That’s men’s business. When is it?” asked Amina Musa Digsi, a mother of seven living on the edge since drought killed her livestock.
Back in Nairobi, some say the closeness of the race shows how -- with economic growth averaging 5 percent annually under Kibaki -- democracy has advanced since independence from Britain in 1963.
Others say it heightens the potential for fraud and violence that risks showing the world how -- even if Kenya has escaped the wars of its neighbors -- it stays mired in tribalism.
Already, a handful of deaths, chaos at rallies and accusations of vote-buying and tampering with election registers have overshadowed exchanges of ideas.
One recent newspaper cartoon depicted a crowd of politicians in a field of mud, hurling clods and smearing dirt on each other. One pair stabbed knives in each other’s backs, as bags labeled “Principles” and “Honesty” sank into mud.
Foreign donors are nervous.
“It is important 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,” said EU observer team head Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, reciting what has become a mantra from Kenya’s Western friends.
Challenger Odinga, a charismatic ex-political prisoner and successful entrepreneur, overtook Kibaki in opinion polls for the first time in September and still holds a slender lead despite a small comeback by the president’s Party of National Unity.
The only radical difference between the two main candidates is in style. Odinga -- seeking the ‘underdog’ vote -- is an energetic crowd-pleaser with attention-grabbing rhetoric. Kibaki -- representing continuity -- is measured, courteous, and slow to proffer opinions on controversies.
On policy, both vow to extend free education to secondary schools and double economic growth to make Kenya an “African Tiger.” Odinga seems to have shaken off fears in business circles he is a closet socialist, even though he studied in the old communist East Germany and named his first-born Fidel Castro.
“Neither of the two leading contenders for the presidential election is likely in our view to substantively change economic policy,” said British-based African economic analyst David Cowan.
Neither would either man end Kenya’s role as U.S. anti-terrorism ally and friend of the West; although Kenyans have been irked by Kibaki’s failure to tackle graft.
Here in North-Eastern province, the 300,000 voters do not have enough significance to affect the outcome of the presidential and parliamentary poll.
But Odinga, 62, who served as a minister under Kibaki until 2005, has sought support in disgruntled communities like this to capitalize on a sense that the president’s Kikuyu tribe, the largest of Kenya’s 40 or so ethnic groups, has been too selfish.
Odinga comes from another neglected corner -- the Nyanza region on the edge of Lake Victoria in the west vies with North-Eastern for bottom place in poverty tables -- and despite his wealth and elite connections, presents himself as a champion of the poor.
His own Luo tribe, the third-largest ethnic group, forms a fanatical support base, hoping that his power will for the first time let them “eat” their share of national wealth.
He has also won over many in the Muslim community, now roughly 15 percent of the population. Muslim leaders are furious at harassment of their kind: especially Kenya’s deportation to anti-Islamist, pro-Washington Ethiopia of some suspects caught in neighboring Somalia’s anti-Islamist campaign.
“We are 100 percent going to punish this government so it does not get a second term,” Sheikh Muhammad Dor, head of the Imams and Preachers of Kenya group, told Reuters.
Odinga may be ahead in six of Kenya’s eight regions, but Kibaki, a 76-year-old veteran politician and trained economist, is by no means out of the running.
Kibaki’s tribe wields strong economic power and has provided two of Kenya’s three post-independence presidents.
His unspectacular campaign message, “Kazi Iendelee” (“The Work Continues”), could deliver a surge of support in the final days if concerns mount that Odinga’s populism risks jeopardizing the country’s hard-won economic stability.
Even in North-Eastern -- where about two-thirds say they favor Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement -- many praise the president for at least bringing a few more wells to an area that had been pretty much abandoned in preceding decades.
Other achievements he can trumpet include free primary education, better water and electricity services for Kenya’s rural majority, and greater democratic space than under his autocratic predecessor Daniel arap Moi.
But as the politics and tribalism heat up, the women in the Mandera food queue may be better served by the perspective from Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong‘o.
“Kenya, like Africa as a whole, has only two tribes,” he wrote in an article from his U.S. home, “the haves and the have-nots.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith