By Maggie Fick
KISUMU, Kenya (Reuters) - Polling stations in Kenyan opposition strongholds were shuttered on Thursday and youths burnt street barricades, heeding an election boycott set to hand victory to President Uhuru Kenyatta, but with a mandate compromised by low turnout and procedural flaws.
Those shortcomings in Kenya's election re-run, already acknowledged by judges and the election commission, are likely to trigger legal challenges and could spark violence in a country riven by deep ethnic divisions.
The fresh election follows an August vote whose result, a Kenyatta victory, was annulled by the Supreme Court due to procedural irregularities. Opposition leader Raila Odinga has said he will not take part in the re-run election.
In the western town of Migori, several hundred young men milled around on a main road littered with rubble and burning barricades, according to footage on the domestic NTV channel.
In Kisumu, another western city and the epicenter of support for opposition leader Odinga, polling stations that were meant to open at dawn stayed firmly shut and election officials were nowhere to be found.
The previous evening, one nervous voting officer described his work in the city, the center of major ethnic violence after a disputed election in 2007, as a "suicide mission".
Kisumu Central returning officer John Ngutai said only three of his 400 staff had shown up for work and there was no security to deliver ballot boxes.
"We don't have any options," he told Reuters, as he and two presiding officers sorted thousands of ballot papers into piles, work that should have been completed the previous day.
Kisumu businessman Joshua Nyamori, 42, was one of the few voters brave enough to defy an Odinga call for a stay-away but could find nowhere to cast his ballot in the city of a million on the shores of Lake Victoria.
"I know it's not a popular move," he said. "Residents fear reprisal from political gangs organized by politicians. This is wrong."
CALL FOR PRAYERS
A decade after 1,200 people were killed over another disputed election, many Kenyans are braced for trouble although Odinga backed off previous calls for protests and urged his supporters to stay out of the way of police.
"We advise Kenyans who value democracy and justice to hold vigils and prayers away from polling stations, or just stay at home," Odinga said.
Odinga's National Super Alliance coalition, which has been accused of harassing polling staff in the run-up to the vote, is likely to present a lack of open polling stations as proof the re-run, organized in less than 60 days, is bogus.
The head of the election commission said last week he could not guarantee a free and fair vote, citing interference from politicians and threats of violence against his colleagues. One election commissioner has quit and fled the country.
Kenyatta, the U.S.-educated son of Kenya's founding father, has made clear he sees Thursday's vote as legitimate. In central Nairobi, where support for the two protagonists is more mixed, turnout was significantly down on the August election.
Anti-riot police were patrolling in Kibera and Mathare, two volatile Nairobi slums. Nearly 50 people have been killed by security forces since the August vote.
The election is being closely watched across East Africa, which relies on Kenya as a trade and logistics hub, and in the West, for whom Nairobi is a bulwark against Islamist militancy in Somalia and civil conflict in South Sudan and Burundi.
In a statement, the U.S. embassy called for calm from all sides but acknowledged that the vote had been damaging to regional stability.
"Following this election, there must be immediate, sustained, open and transparent dialogue involving all Kenyans to resolve the deep divisions that the electoral process has exacerbated," it said.
Speaking on the eve of the vote, Kenyatta assured his countrymen and Kenya's allies that order would be restored.
"I tell all our international partners that we will get through this," he said. "We cannot remain in a perpetual state of politicking."
(Additional reporting by Maggie Fick, David Lewis and John Ndiso in Nairobi and Baz Ratner in Kisumu; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Andrew Roche and Michael perry)