Kenya votes in new constitution


Kenyans weary from decades of misrule have approved a new constitution designed to curb presidential powers and allow the removal of corrupt or incompetent politicians, according to final results released Thursday.

After years of waiting for change, voters discarded the constitution in place since Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963, a document blamed for many of the nation’s ills, such as cronyism and tribal favoritism in politics and the bureaucracy.

The new constitution curbs the sweeping powers of the president by devolving power to the regions and establishing a bicameral parliament.

The measure passed with 67.2% in favor, according to the final tally. Ahmed Issack Hassan, chairman of the Interim Independent Electoral Commission, said 71% of the nation’s 12.7 million registered voters cast ballots.

“Change has finally come to our land. It has come because we refused to give up. It has come because, finally, we agreed to work together,” Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who backed the draft, said at a rally alongside erstwhile rival President Mwai Kibaki.

There was no violence reported as opponents of the measure conceded defeat several hours before the rally, in contrast to the tribal strife that swept Kenya after the disputed 2007 presidential election. At that time Kibaki and Odinga, then bitter adversaries, both claimed victory and refused to concede. They eventually worked out a power-sharing arrangement.

The constitutional referendum was part of the power-sharing deal, which broke the political impasse and ended the violence.

The new constitution devolves power to counties, abolishes the post of prime minister, creates a Senate and reduces by half the number of ministers, to a maximum of 22.

For the first time, the president will be subject to possible impeachment, and constituents unhappy with their parliamentary representatives will be able to remove them, although the process for doing so has not been spelled out.

The constitution also contains a sweeping bill of rights, including a clause outlawing discrimination on any grounds, including race and gender. Critics say this could pave the way for gay marriage.

Kibaki said the peaceful vote was a sign Kenya’s democracy had matured. “The successful and peaceful conclusion of this referendum shows that our democratic institutions have come of age,” he said.

The electoral process was reformed and the Interim Independent Electoral Commission established before the vote, a contrast with 2007, when the previous electoral commission swiftly declared Kibaki the winner despite complaints of irregularities.

The scene was set for violence then when Kibaki was hurriedly sworn into power. Odinga’s supporters burned the shops and houses owned by members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe. Kikuyus took revenge on Odinga’s tribe, the Luos.

Under the new constitution, there will be a delay of more than two months after the vote before the president is sworn in to office.

With Kibaki due to step down in 2012, the strong “yes” vote boosts Odinga’s chances in the presidential race.

Higher Education Minister William Ruto, one of the main opponents of the draft, said Thursday that the “no” camp accepted the result. But he called on government leaders who backed the draft to meet with opponents to amend the most contentious articles and bring more Kenyans on board.