By Humphrey Malalo
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's election board must give access to election returns to parties challenging President Uhuru Kenyatta's victory in last month's presidential election, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.
Access to the original vote tally forms and a copy of the voter register must immediately be granted to the petitioners, a former lawmaker and two human rights activists, the judges said. They denied a request for access to the electronic devices used in vote counting.
The legal challenges come after the court nullified Kenyatta's August victory and ordered a new election, an unprecedented move in Africa. The current proceedings may be the last chance for legal scrutiny of the second election, held on Oct. 26.
The protracted political crisis has stirred fears for the stability of the east African nation, a regional hub for trade, diplomacy and security.
The court is on a tight schedule. It has until Nov. 20 to rule on the two petitions. If the election result is upheld, Kenyatta will be sworn in on Nov. 28.
Chief Justice David Maraga told the petitioners they must file a report on their findings from the returns by Thursday afternoon.
After Wednesday's ruling, lawyers for the petitioners began presenting their cases, arguing the poll's outcome is void because the election board did not hold fresh nominations after the earlier poll was invalidated, among other reasons.
"Our position is you cannot have a fresh presidential election without a fresh round of nominations," said Benjamin Musyoki, a lawyer for former legislator Harun Mwau.
The lawyer for the two activists, Julie Soweto, also argued that voter turnout - just 39 percent, because opposition leader Raila Odinga boycotted the election - required the court to consider whether the election conformed "to the spirit and intent of the constitution."
Violence before and during the election also marred the process, Soweto said. She also referred to remarks by the election board chair the week before polling - he said he could not guarantee the vote would be free and fair, citing interference from politicians and threats of violence against his colleagues [L8N1MT0XK].
The process in the Supreme Court, however, may not repair the rifts opened by this year's prolonged elections season.
A poll released by research firm Ipsos found that 80 percent of Kenyans think the country is going in the wrong direction. Pessimism about the country's path was at a record high - higher than during drought and food shortages earlier this year or a prolonged teachers' strike in 2015.
Human rights groups say at least 66 people have died in election violence, mostly at the hands of police cracking down on opposition supporters.
Electioneering has also disrupted East Africa's richest economy. The government lowered its forecast for 2017 economic growth to 5.5 percent, partly because of the political uncertainty.
The Supreme Court was created by a 2010 constitution that followed a violent political crisis three years earlier. Around 1,200 people were killed in ethnic clashes after a disputed election in 2007.
However, analysts said the moves by Kenya's court may embolden other judiciaries in Africa. This month, Liberia's Supreme Court halted a presidential run-off until the election board investigates claims of fraud in the first round of voting.
(Reporting by Humphrey Malalo; Additional reporting by John Ndiso; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Larry King)