Kenyans on Tenterhooks as Votes Are Counted in Presidential Race

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenyans waited anxiously on Wednesday for the results of their presidential election, the most closely fought in years, amid conflicting estimates of which candidate was ahead.

Unofficial tallies by several Kenyan news outlets put William Ruto, the country’s vice president who campaigned as the champion of Kenya’s “hustlers” — struggling young people — at least three percentage points ahead of his rival, Raila Odinga.

But at least one major news organization put Mr. Odinga, a former political detainee who later became prime minister and is making his fifth run for the presidency, ahead by a similar margin in the balloting held on Tuesday.

The conflicting estimates, based on preliminary counts of less than half of all votes, only confirmed that the race to lead Kenya, an East African powerhouse struggling through a grinding economic crisis, was too close to call.

The period between voting and results is especially delicate in Kenya, where it has been a focus of vote-rigging accusations. The last three presidential elections ended in chaos after Mr. Odinga, the losing candidate in each of those contests, claimed to have been cheated. In 2007, that dispute triggered widespread violence in which over 1,200 people were killed.

By Wednesday evening, 24 hours after polls closed, the national election commission reported that 99 percent of results from all polling stations had been electronically submitted — and were publicly available on the commission’s website.

But those results came in the form of about 45,000 images, all handwritten tally sheets, which greatly slowed the task of determining the overall result. On top of that, electoral officials said it could take several days more to declare a winner because they must verify every electronic image against its paper original — a process that had not even begun on Wednesday evening.

However, there is likely to be at least an unofficial result by Thursday, when news media organizations are expected to have completed their private tallies of the entire vote.

Ordinary Kenyans, meanwhile, waited with bated breath.

In Nakuru, the biggest city in the Rift Valley, motorcycle taxi drivers argued about who had won. In nearby Molo, young men clustered around a newspaper stand to scrutinize headlines about the race.

And at her home outside Eldoret, Grace Nyambura flipped through the TV news stations and incessantly scrolled through her smartphone, checking for the latest indications of a result.

“We cannot sleep,” said Ms. Nyambura, 36, who left her work tending to a plot of avocados and maize plants to follow the news. “These results have taken over our lives,” she added. “We need to know how things will end.”

Not everyone was so engaged. The head of the election commission, Wafula Chebukati, said turnout would exceed 65 percent — higher than the commission’s estimate of 60 percent on Tuesday, but still considerably below the 80 percent figure of the last election.

Soaring food prices combined with disillusionment at the choice of candidates seems to have persuaded some Kenyans to stay at home. Although their images are strikingly different, Mr. Ruto, 55, and Mr. Odinga, 77, are both products of Kenya’s calcified political elite, which is notorious for its shifting alliances and endemic corruption.

“I just feel like there’s no change,” said Florence Wangari, 30, an event planner in Nakuru who opted to catch up with some work on Tuesday, a public holiday, instead of “wasting time in line” to vote.

Like others, Ms. Wangari pointed to the high unemployment rate and the government’s failure to deliver decent education and health care. It feels like “there’s nothing that my vote is going to change,” she said.

Even so, Mr. Ruto appeared to have broken through in some areas with his appeal to frustrated “hustlers,” a novelty in a country where political choices are often shaped by ethnic loyalties.

Early results showed him polling strongly in the coastal region, where Mr. Odinga hoped to shore up his base, and, crucially, in Mount Kenya, the crucible of Kenyan politics.

In recent years, President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was barred by term limits from running again this year, had a falling-out with Mr. Ruto, his running mate in the last two elections, and forged an alliance with Mr. Odinga, his adversary in those contests.

Mr. Odinga had been counting on that realignment to boost his support in the central Mount Kenya region, primary home of the Kikuyu ethnic group that includes Mr. Kenyatta and has dominated Kenyan politics for decades.

But initial results showed Mr. Odinga polling disappointingly in that area — a blow to his electoral fortunes but also an implicit rejection of Mr. Kenyatta, whose extensive business interests in the area have become a source of popular resentment.

As the unofficial counts progressed, prominent supporters in both camps claimed their candidate was emerging victorious. But others appealed to members of the public to band together and crowdsource a tallying effort — and help to figure out who their next president will be.

Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, Kenya, and Abdi Latif Dahir from Eldoret, Kenya.