NAIROBI: Kenyans formed long lines before sunrise across the country Wednesday to vote on a new constitution that would reduce the powers of the presidency in the nation’s first ballot since post election violence left more than 1,000 dead.
Leaders here have called on the country to carry out a peaceful referendum, and promised increased security to ward off the violence that plagued the last national vote.
Police say they are better placed to deal with post-vote violence than the last national vote in 2007-08, when gangs hacked opponents to death and police were accused of shooting sprees.
Enthusiasm for the new constitution appeared high in the Nairobi slum of Kibera, where lines formed as early as 3 a.m., according to election worker George Rabalah. Voters waited five hours or more to cast votes in the Rift Valley, west of the capital.
"We are making history. Many of us were not here when we got the first constitution after independence, and it does not suit us," said businessman Sam Ochieng, 35, who voted in Kibera.
The international community, and particularly the U.S., has urged Kenyans to pass the constitution, even as the draft has raised emotions over land rights, abortion and Muslim family courts. Kenya’s current constitution, drawn up in the lead-up to Kenya’s 1963 independence from Britain, grants the president sweeping powers.
The referendum is one of the conditions of the power-sharing agreement between President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minster Raila Odinga that ended the 2007-08 violence. Both back the new constitution, and both appealed to Kenyans to vote peacefully.
"From the reports I have received, it is peaceful all over the country and we want this to remain that way so that Kenyans can peacefully decide their future," Odinga said after casting his vote in Kibera, where excited crowds pushed to get close to him. "I have no doubt in my mind that the ‘yes’ will win resoundingly."
Polls show the constitution is likely to pass, and Associated Press reporters in the field Wednesday had a difficult time finding voters who said they would vote against the draft.
The leaders of both the "No" and "Yes" campaigns called on Kenyans to remain peaceful after the vote. Both sides said they would accept any outcome.
Police have increased their presence, particularly in the Rift Valley, where violence in 2007-08 was heavy. James Otumba voted in the town of Naivasha.
"It’s a struggle between the haves and the have-nots in this country, and the haves are trying to maintain the status quo," said Otumba, 43, a teacher shot in the chest during the 2007-08 violence. "This is a revolution taking place in this country and I cannot be left behind. This constitution is one thing that can actually reconcile the nation."
Political and religious leaders campaigning against the constitution alleged the government planned to rig the vote. The "No" camp said they had informed the electoral commission and had put in place measures to guard against rigging.
The head of Kenya’s electoral commission said that vote tallying will be more transparent than during the last election, when claims of vote rigging led to violence. The count will be broadcast live on TV and radio.
In the Rift Valley town of Nakuru, hundreds of voters lined up starting at 5 a.m., and many had to wait five hours or more to cast ballots.
"Since we got independence from Britain our country has not run smoothly. The current constitution has not been used well, but we didn’t write that one, and we are writing this one," said Paul Wahome, a 23-year-old student who waited six hours in line.
The "No" vote is backed by most of Kenya’s church community, which objects to a clause that says abortion is permitted if the life or health of the mother is in danger according to the opinion of a "trained health professional." The draft also has stirred emotions over publicly funded family courts for Muslims.
The chairman of Kenya’s electoral commission, Isaack Hassan, said officials were encouraged by a large turnout across the country. He said ballot deliveries were delayed to a few polling stations by accidents and heavy rains.
During the 2007-08 violence, tribesmen used bows and arrows to fight each other, gangs hacked opponents to death and police were accused of shooting sprees. More than 63,000 police officers will secure this year’s referendum.
The draft constitution cuts down the president’s enormous powers by setting up an American-style presidential system of checks and balances. Kenyan presidents have long favored their own tribesmen in the distribution of resources, a source of tension here.
An earlier draft constitution that was put to a referendum in 2005 was rejected by 57 percent of voters because critics had argued its provisions did not go far enough to curb presidential powers.
The "No" camp in 2005 had tapped into public resentment over Kibaki going slow on the wide-ranging reform agenda he was elected on. Of particular concern at the time was the
perception the president was doing little to root out corruption that had become endemic under the 24-year rule of his predecessor, President Daniel arap Moi.
Additional reporting by Tom Maliti.