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Kenya constitution vote could pave way to stability

A key concern in the Kenya constitution vote is ethnic divisions. But in the Rift Valley town of Eldoret, where much of the 2008 postelection violence occurred, voters were calm and even top 'no' vote politicians accepted the results.

By Correspondent, Scott BaldaufStaff writer / August 5, 2010

Supporters of the YES Camp at Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi, Kenya, shout slogans Thursday as they gather to listen to President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga after the YES Camp claimed victory in Wednesday's referendum voting for the new constitution.

Sayyid Azim/AP

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Eldoret, Kenya; and Johannesburg, South Africa

As the official vote-counting continued, politicians and activists who supported a referendum to approve a new constitution claimed victory and opponents admitted defeat, in a vote that could pave the way for a more politically stable Kenya.

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The “yes” vote to approve the new constitution garnered 69 percent of the vote, with nearly half the polling counted, making it all but certain that the constitution would be approved. The new constitution, written in 2009, was backed both by Kenya’s sitting president, Mwai Kibaki – who is forbidden from running for office again – and by current Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is a likely front-runner in the next national elections, expected in 2012.

Under the current Constitution, which remains in effect until the vote count is finalized, the president has wide powers similar to those given British colonial administrators, including the naming of judges and the deployment of security forces. The new constitution would curtail those powers dramatically, and advocates say that a new system of checks and balances will prevent Kenyan electoral politics from becoming a violent, winner-takes-all process. The deeply flawed elections held in December 2007 sparked a wave of ethnic violence that killed 1,300 people, until a coalition government between the two main contenders was negotiated.

“People are calling this the Second Republic, the first one being the transfer of power from colonialism to independence,” says Mwalimu Mati, director of the Mars Group Kenya, a nonprofit think tank that monitors government corruption and democratic rights. “Why this had to happen is clear. Our Constitution set up a presidential system with highly centralized powers in one man, the president. When one side stole an election, the other side had no recourse to courts, but only through violence.”

Vigilance needed for true democracy

But transforming Kenya into a truly democratic society based on the rule of law will take more than just one vote, Mr. Mati adds. “Our political class is adept at counterreform. We don’t want the new system to retain all the bad habits of the past. We need to stay vigilant.”

The growing likelihood of passage of a new constitution has already had a positive effect on Kenyan markets, where investors fretted about the possible return of the violent postelection days of early 2008.

But the debate over enacting a new constitution had more than its share of controversy. Kenya’s powerful Christian church community organized to oppose the new draft under the mistaken notion that it would legalize abortion (in fact, abortion remains illegal except in rare cases where a pregnant mother’s life would be in danger if she gave birth). A mysterious bomb blast at a “no” rally in Nairobi killed six.

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