NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's Supreme Court said on Saturday it would rule by 1400 GMT on legal challenges to Uhuru Kenyatta's win in a presidential election, a vote seen as a test of democracy five years after ballot disputes triggered widespread bloodshed.
The country's outgoing president called for calm ahead of a decision that will either force a fresh election or confirm the victory of Kenya's richest man Kenyatta, who is facing charges of crimes against humanity in the Hague.
Defeated candidate Raila Odinga says the March 4 poll was marred by technical problems and widespread rigging. Both politicians have promised to abide by the court's final word.
"Compatriots: The Supreme Court will deliver its decision not later than 5 p.m. today, Inshallah (God willing)," Chief Justice Willy Mutunga wrote on his Twitter account.
The ruling is expected to address a list of challenges to the result. It was not immediately clear if the timing announced referred to when the court would start reading details of its verdict or the time by which it expected to complete that task.
Calm voting in this year's election, and the fact the dispute is being played out by lawyers not machete-wielding gangs, has already helped repair the image of east Africa's largest economy.
But Saturday's ruling will be the real test of whether Kenyans trust their reformed judiciary and whether supporters of rival candidates accept the result quietly in a nation where tribal loyalties largely determine political allegiances.
Paramilitary police, some on horseback, formed a security cordon around the court. Police chief David Kimaiyo has repeatedly said he would not allow public rallies.
A few dozen Odinga supporters, some draped in the Kenyan flag and others waving Odinga posters, gathered near the court but were barred from advancing by security forces.
Outgoing President Mwai Kibaki said in a message to mark the Christian Easter holiday weekend: "I call upon all of us to accept the ruling and maintain peace."
Many ordinary Kenyans insist they will not allow a repeat of the violence that killed more than 1,200 people and hammered the economy following a dispute over the last election in 2007.
"We have moved on," said Monica Njagi, 28, an internet cafe owner in the port city of Mombasa. "Whatever the ruling, we shall go by it ... We have enough useful lessons from our past."
Kenyatta comfortably beat Odinga in terms of votes won, with 50.07 percent versus 43.28 percent, but only narrowly avoided a run-off by just edging above the 50 percent threshold.
Western donors are watching the fate of a regional trade partner and a country they see as vital to stability in a volatile area. They also face a headache if Kenyatta wins.
He is facing charges at the International Criminal Court of crimes against humanity, accused of helping incite the violence after the 2007 vote. Kenyatta denies the charges and has promised to cooperate with the court to clear his name.
Western nations have a policy of having only "essential contacts" with indictees of the court. They say that will not affect dealings with the Kenyan government as a whole, but will worry the issue could drive a long-time ally of the West closer to emerging powers such as China.
Neighbouring African states are also keeping a careful eye on proceedings after they were hit by the knock-on effects when vital trade routes through Kenya were shut down five years ago.
Kenya's economy has yet to recover fully from the pummelling it took after the vote violence, with growth rates still yet to return to levels before that bloodshed.
"My worry is that if the court orders another election, tourism will suffer further," said Mohammed Hersi, general manager of the Whitesands hotel, a top Mombasa resort, saying clients were waiting to decide whether to come.
In the Supreme Court's hearing on Friday, the legal teams reviewed results of recounts ordered in 22 of the 33,400 polling stations after Odinga said more votes had been cast than there were registered voters. Both sides said the recounts supported their arguments.
Odinga's team argued that the failures undermined the vote. Rival lawyers said any irregularities or technical hiccups had an insignificant impact and did not change the overall outcome.
International observers said voting itself was credible, but diplomats say observers did not watch the full five-day count.
Additional reporting by Joseph Akwiri in Mombasa, Hezron Ochiel in Kisumu and James Macharia in Nairobi; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Jon Boyle