OTHAYA, Kenya (Reuters) - With a political career as old as his nation, President Mwai Kibaki faces a verdict on his progress leading east Africa’s biggest economy and efforts to fix years of corruption at his final election battle this month.
The 76-year-old politician, elected as a legislator for every term since independence from Britain in 1963, is slightly behind main challenger Raila Odinga heading into the December 27 elections.
This time Kibaki is fighting a different battle.
Where he was the candidate for change against 39 years of single-party dominance in 2002, now rivals paint him as a relic of Kenya’s old guard out only to help his Kikuyu tribe.
Kibaki’s public standing is a long way from when he took his oath of office in 2002, when thousands gathered in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park to cheer his victory over Daniel arap Moi.
Kibaki’s landslide victory was seen as a repudiation of Moi’s 24 years of corruption, oppression and economic failure, all of which Kibaki had pledged to reverse.
Even critics cannot dispute he has succeeded in opening up press freedom -- notwithstanding an internationally criticized raid on a media house last year -- and turned Kenya’s economy from negative to forecasted 2007 GDP growth of 6.9-7.0 percent.
But on corruption, those critics say Kibaki’s government has carried on the graft seen under Moi and let the guilty go free because they are political allies. Three accused ministers are now back in office.
That, analysts say, is why he is behind in the polls.
“The economy is an argument he will not win the election on. Prices have gone up since he came to power. He is being seen generally as a failure when it comes to his promises,” University of Nairobi political scientist Bernard Ochieng said.
Kibaki has been underestimated since he was a boy, growing up the son of a tobacco trader in the lush tea and coffee fields near Mount Kenya in the central highlands.
“When we were in school, we never thought he could be a president. A doctor maybe,” said Samuel Githambo, 80, who was in Kibaki’s class in Gatuini primary school in Othaya, Kibaki’s hometown. “But he was too clever. He defeated everybody.”
Kibaki studied hard and went to Kampala’s Makerere University. After becoming the first African to earn a first-class degree from the London School of Economics he returned to Makerere as an economics lecturer in 1958.
There, he tasted politics in the heady days of African independence movements, and by the time Kenya won its freedom, he was an aide to founding President Jomo Kenyatta.
Even then, he had a reputation as an indecisive fence-sitter who was slow to act.
“Politically, we thought he was a fool because he didn’t push or shove or make noise. But he was just building himself for later,” Githambo said.
When independence came, Kibaki was elected to parliament and two years later appointed commerce and industry minister. Moi appointed him vice president in 1978.
He also served as finance minister from 1970 until 1983 when Moi moved him to lesser ministries, part of a falling out that would eventually push Kibaki into opposition.
“The reason he was fired as finance minister by Moi was because his equations were too good. And the international community used to listen to him,” Githambo said.
Many Kenyans are skeptical that anyone who has spent so much time in politics -- particularly as finance minister under Moi’s infamously corrupt regime -- did not steal.
Kibaki is among Kenya’s richest men with vast land holdings and business interests including farming and investments.
But he himself has never been accused of corruption.
Supporters say Kibaki benefited from his political prominence and contacts -- the key to wealth in Kenya.
They say he has always been a hard worker who valued education and point out that he bought his first property in 1953, when he was 22 years old.
Githambo said Kibaki has not come through Othaya passing out bribes, as other politicians do, because he doesn’t need to.
“We rural people now live like people in the city with electricity. And our children go to school for free. What else can he bring us?” Githambo asked.
That kind of development across the country and tribal lines is what Kibaki hopes Kenyans will appreciate on election day.
His Party of National Unity’s slogan is “work continues,” and he wants voters to give him five more years to improve a solid development record.
Though Kibaki faces what many call Kenya’s toughest electoral fight yet, it is not his first close call. In 1969, he won by a mere 500 votes another term in his Nairobi constituency Bahati -- which is Kiswahili for lucky.
Additional reporting by Florence Muchori, Editing by Giles Elgood