High turnout for Kenyan Constitution referendum

Kenyans voted in droves in a referendum on a new Constitution on Wednesday.

Nakuru: Kenyans voted in droves in a referendum on a new Constitution on Wednesday, a poll seen as a test of democracy after disputed 2007 elections and one that could reshape the politics of east Africa`s largest economy.

The constitutional changes are seen as important to avoid a repeat of the post-election tribal bloodshed in early 2008 that killed 1,300 people and took the country of about 40 million people to the brink of anarchy.

They address the corruption, political patronage, land grabbing and tribalism which have plagued Kenya since it won independence in 1963. The changes allow for greater checks on presidential powers, more devolution to grassroots administrations and an increase in civil liberties.

There were long queues at polling stations across the country, especially in the Rift Valley centres of Eldoret and Nakuru that were at the epicentre of the post-election violence.

Most Kenyans are expected to vote in favour of the new Constitution, according to surveys. If the law fails, Kenya would revert to the current Constitution bequeathed by former colonial power Britain.

William Ruto, a Cabinet minister based in the Rift Valley who is leading "No" campaigners angry with clauses related to land ownership, said he would accept the outcome.

"This is a historic moment in our country and I`m sure Kenyans will make the right decision," he told reporters in his constituency. "Everyone has an obligation to accept the decision of the people of Kenya."

A previous attempt to change the Constitution through a referendum in 2005 failed. To be adopted, the law requires a majority of 50 percent plus one vote of the ballot cast nationally and at least 25 percent of the votes in five of Kenya`s eight provinces.

Kenyan shares rallied strongly for the fifth straight session on Tuesday, driven by expectations the law will be adopted, while the shilling rose against the dollar.

Markets were closed for the voting on Wednesday. Traders and analysts say investors would take great confidence from the peaceful passage of the constitutional changes into law.

"Defining Moment"

As voting kicked off at 6.00 am, a queue several hundred meters (yards) long snaked away from a polling station on Moi Avenue in the heart of the capital Nairobi. A few hours later it had grown even longer.

At the sprawling Kibera slum in Nairobi, another hotspot of post-election violence, voting was peaceful three hours after stations opened. There were long lines with many elderly women being helped by officials to the front of the queues.

In Eldoret and Nakurau, some voters said they hoped the referendum would usher in a new era of peaceful democracy.

"I decided to come and vote for the new Constitution because I believe it is going to guarantee me security in Rongai where we have suffered for so long," said 76-year-old Helen Gathoni, who was voting in the Rift Valley centre of Nakuru.

"In 2008, I lost my husband Mwangi Njoroge and all our property to raiders. I believe this is going to end."

Bureau Report

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