NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyans voted in favour of a new constitution in a peaceful referendum that could reshape the political landscape of east Africa’s largest economy.
With official results from almost all the polling stations released by the electoral authority, 69 percent of Kenyans had backed the charter, and the “No” camp conceded defeat trailing with an insurmountable gap.
The changes put to voters on Wednesday -- coming two years after allegations over vote-rigging in a presidential election ignited violence that killed 1,300 people -- allow for greater checks on presidential powers.
The new legal framework addresses the corruption, political patronage, land-grabbing and tribalism which have plagued Kenya since it won independence from Britain in 1963.
The “Yes” camp claimed victory in the capital in front of a sea of supporters blowing vuvuzelas, chanting and dancing. President Mwai Kibaki lauded Kenyans for endorsing the new law, welcoming the victory as “a renewal for the nation”.
“The historic journey that started more than 20 years ago has come to a happy end,” Kibaki said, flanked by Prime Minister Raila Odinga and cabinet ministers who backed the new law.
“We shall soon announce the date of promulgation of the new constitution,” said Kibaki, who promised to work with those who opposed the law in realising the dream of Kenya’s founders.
Higher Education Minister William Ruto, leader of the “No” side, conceded defeat before Kibaki spoke, but quickly went on the offensive saying 60 percent of registered voters had either abstained or said “No”, so there should be immediate consultations with the “Yes” side on amendments to the new law.
“(The) majority had their way, we had our say. Now that Kenyans have endorsed that we pass, we are now proposing immediate consultations,” Ruto told a news conference.
“We want to be part of taking Kenya to the future.”
Wednesday’s peaceful referendum, hailed by election observers as transparent, boosted the Kenyan shilling against the dollar and extended a stock market rally.
“Confidence was a key requirement for economic turnaround, and the peaceful passage of the vote should do a lot to underscore that,” said Razia Khan, Africa economist at Standard Chartered Bank.
After years of marred elections, the charter is seen as an important step in avoiding a repeat of the post-election tribal bloodshed in early 2008 that pushed the country of about 40 million people to the brink of anarchy.
The changes include more devolution to grassroots administrations and an increase in civil liberties.
Kenya, which borders Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania, is the fourth largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa, Nigeria and Angola.
Ruto’s ambition to run for president in the 2012 election was bolstered by a big win in the Rift Valley for the “No” camp, despite defeat overall.
Ruto, a cabinet minister based in Kenya’s largest province, had championed the cause of voters who were angry about clauses related to land ownership and he said these contentious issues must now be addressed by the government.
“We urge the winners and losers to come together for the sake of the country so we can concentrate on development issues,” said Jane Njeri, who is living in a camp in Gilgil for Kenyans displaced by past electoral violence.
In the fertile Rift Valley, the “No” camp’s stronghold and the epicentre of the violence after the last election, some said Kenyans should now unite and reject divisive politics.
“The real issue lies with our leaders. Reform is not only on paper but I doubt the leaders can unite. They protect their ill-gotten wealth by pitting communities against each other,” said Tom Murgor, 55, a civil engineer and Kalenjin in Eldoret.
The fighting in the Rift Valley after the last election essentially pitted ethnic Kalenjins supporting the opposition against the Kikuyu tribe of Kibaki.
No major incidents were reported at Kenya’s 27,689 polling stations. Some 12.5 million people were registered to vote.
With 196 of 210 constituencies counted, the “Yes” side had 5,696,882 votes and the “No” camp 2,583,817, Kenya’s electoral authority official results showed.
To be adopted, the law required 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.
The new charter was a key provision in the power-sharing deal struck between then-rivals Kibaki and Odinga to end the violence after the 2007 election. Analysts said the win would support Odinga’s presidential ambitions.