Kenyans vote on draft Constitution

Kenyans voted peacefully on Monday in a constitutional referendum amid fears of violence after a bitterly contested campaign for the first major change to the country’s charter since independence.

Long lines were seen at polling stations as up to 11,6-million voters queued to cast ballots on the draft that has split President Mwai Kibaki’s government and sparked violence in which at least eight people have been killed.

At least 50 000 personnel from the East African country’s security forces were deployed across polling stations for Kenya’s first-ever plebiscite, which is being monitored by about 150 observers.

The new Constitution would be the first overhaul to the charter since Kenya won independence from Britain in 1963 and has been disputed partly because the much-amended final text would keep much power in presidential hands.

Polls opened at 7am local time and were to close at 5pm, with early results expected on Tuesday.

Opposition

Opponents of the draft document, led by Uhuru Kenyatta and influential Roads Minister Raila Odinga, have accused the government of plotting to rig in regions where voters are likely to reject the draft law.

The text would retain the sweeping powers of the Presidency and introduce the position of prime minister but without the authority called for by Odinga and other critics.

They say the draft reneges on promises from Kibaki, who was elected in 2002 on a reform platform, and predicted the Constitution would be rejected by voters.

Church leaders have rejected the document because of its provisions for Muslim courts and the possibility it could legalise on-demand abortion and gay marriage.

In central Kenya, Kibaki expressed optimism of victory.

“Today is an important day,” he told reporters. “We don’t have much to say [because] votes will be counted tomorrow and we are sure that it will be okay.

“Some people had brought malice, but you are the ones who will show the right direction.”

Peaceful voting

Early polling was largely peaceful, although tempers flared in some constituencies where hundreds of voters complained their names were missing from the register. People were reportedly buying voter’s cards in Gatundu, the hometown of Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s revered founding president.

“All is fine.
We will maintain tight security around polling centres,” said Albert Waweru, a spokesperson for police in the western town of Kisumu, where at least four people were killed in rioting last month.

Violence convulsed the capital in July, leaving one person dead after Parliament decided to send the draft to a referendum and numerous rallies, including in Kisumu, were marred by clashes.

On Monday, police pitched tents in the capital’s Independence Square as thousands of voters waited.

“For me, this is very important,” said Tom Ogembo (32) as he cast a “no” ballot in the capital’s massive Kibera slum.

“I am voting orange ‘no’ because the president said ‘no’-voters are fools,” said voter Jack Omondi.

Scores of people in Kibera wore orange, the colour of the ballot symbol representing a “no” vote. A banana represents a “yes” vote.

Democratic space

“I have read the Constitution and I have seen that democratic space has opened up,” David Nderitu, a retired teacher, said at a polling station in central Kenya.

“There is a lot of change in the administration and the government will only improve with this Constitution ... there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Susan Nyambura, a farmer.

“The new Constitution greatly improves the rights of women,” added Lucy Theuri, a teacher in the central town of Nyeri, at the foot of Mount Kenya.

In Kibera, Odinga said the “no” vote would prevail.

“We are confident, we are going to get 80% of the vote,” Odinga told reporters after voting. “I am positive, the vote will go in our favour; we will not accept a rigged vote.”

Observers reported no significant problems, but warned lengthy delays could lead to frustration and unrest.

“There are more people here than registered,” said Sheikh Ahmed Ramadhan, of Kenya’s Institute of Education and Democracy.

“People are nervous and complaining because the voting is delayed,” he said. “If this is not addressed, I think the situation will turn ugly.”

“I am impressed by the turnout,” said Patrick Lumumba, the secretary of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission. “The political class should take the cue from the manner in which the people of Kenya have conducted themselves with decorum.”—Sapa-AFP

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