Kenya to vote on new constitution

August 3, 2010 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, August 3 – Kenyans will vote Wednesday on a proposed constitution that would rein in the president\’s powers and address some of the injustices that fuelled deadly violence the last time voters went to the polls.

Backed by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the "yes" vote has a clear edge in opinion polls despite a feisty "no" campaign which has stigmatised the new text as favouring Muslims, abortion and certain tribes.

Some 12.6 million voters are called to the polls after a tense campaign rattled by a grenade attack on a "no" rally that left six dead on June 13 and ratcheted up fears of renewed political unrest.

"The day after tomorrow, all of us will be heading to the voting booths to make the choice between the old way of life and a new order as envisaged under the proposed constitution," said Monday\’s Daily Nation newspaper.

The current constitution dates back to Kenya\’s independence from Britain in 1963 and reform was a key component of the power-sharing deal that ended the chaos sparked by the December 2007 Kibaki-Odinga election feud.

Police and tribal violence that left some 1,500 dead and half a million displaced shattered Kenya\’s image as a beacon of regional stability and saw foreign mediators rushing to the rescue.

The reform agenda subsequently outlined has been sluggishly undertaken by Kenya\’s fragile coalition government and the drafting of the new constitution has been its most significant attempt to come good.

"This is a historical event for this country and its citizens," Kibaki said at a rally last week.

The campaign was due to wind up Monday after major rallies by both camps Sunday in Nairobi drew tens of thousands of people.

The amendment does away with the post of prime minister created for Odinga in 2008, creates a senate, devolves a degree of power to counties and slaps a number of checks and balances on the president, who will become impeachable.

It is also designed to curtail patronage and rein in the greed that has characterised Kenyan politics, notably by requiring that the entire cabinet be composed of ministers appointed from outside parliament, and limiting their number to 22, less than half the current level.

Another key point in a country where land ownership is the key source of power is the creation of a land commission that will be tasked with looking into injustices and providing more scrutiny on titling and registration.

Such significant reforms were overshadowed by secondary issues, however.

Fierce jostling ahead of the 2012 presidential election led William Ruto, minister of higher education, to spearhead the campaign against the new constitution despite being one of its main authors.

Supported by dozens of Kenya\’s influential churches, the "red" camp has made tempers flare by painting the new constitution as legalising abortion, selling off the justice system to Islam or even considering gay marriage.

Yet the text only maintains the traditional kadhis (family tribunals) as subordinate courts, already enshrined in the existing constitution.

On abortion, the document stresses that life begins at conception and that abortion is banned unless there is a need for emergency treatment or the health of the mother is in danger.

The "green" camp has campaigned relentlessly in favour of the new constitution, five years after Kibaki\’s first attempt was rejected by the public.

Some observers have expressed fears that the new constitution\’s provisions on land could be interpreted in tribal flashpoints as a green light for some communities to reclaim settled land they consider their own.

In some of the areas in the Rift Valley worst hit by the 2007-2007 violence, residents feared a repeat of the unrest and some even left their homes to seek refuge for the duration of the referendum.

But a revived national cohesion and integration commission has monitored local rallies closely and kept a lid on incitement, while huge security deployments have also fanned out across the country to deter unrest.


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