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NAIROBI (Reuters) - The speaker of Kenya's parliament will rule on Thursday in a dispute over appointing top judicial figures which has pitted the nation's prime minister against President Mwai Kibaki.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga, along with some ministers and rights groups, has accused Kibaki of acting against a new constitution by naming the officials without consulting Odinga as required by the new basic law.
The ruling by speaker Kenneth Marende is seen as a test of whether Kenya can begin to make a clean break with the past -- marred by violence following elections in 2007 -- and shine a light on how the government operates under the new charter backed by two-thirds of voters and launched last August.
Marende said on Tuesday he would rule on whether members of parliament should decide in a vote on whether to endorse the judicial figures named by the president.
"I have jurisdiction to decide on this matter. I will give directions one way or the other on Thursday afternoon," Marende told lawmakers after a heated debate on the issue that has polarised Kenya. "The matter which has been canvassed in this house this afternoon is a matter of national importance."
The nominations are meant to improve public confidence in the judiciary and boost Kenya's case to hold any trials of people suspected of involvement in the post-election violence rather than at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Marende said he was formally notified of the nominations by the presidency and also received a letter from Odinga's office urging him to prevent a vote on them -- a sign of the tug-of-war in cabinet over an issue that has poisoned Kenya's politics.
Parliament is likely to endorse the presidential nominations if they go to a vote.
Should the speaker rule against a vote, this would be a slap in the face to Kibaki, whereas allowing the vote could make Odinga's role in government appear even more impotent as he wants to have an equal role in making the nominations.
Odinga has declared the nominations "null and void" and said that Kenya is in "a constitutional crisis". Kibaki's allies insist consultations with Odinga did take place, and have urged parliament to rubber stamp the nominations.
The new basic law, which Kenyans have wanted for over 20 years, mainly aims to check presidential powers and the political patronage that have plagued east Africa's biggest economy since independence from Britain in 1963.
The new law says parliament must vote either to endorse or reject top state officials before they can take office, unlike in the past when it was the president's prerogative to appoint them.
"Marende is in a tight spot. If he blocks the vote, he will make Kibaki lose face and may suffer the wrath of Kibaki's allies who have the numbers to vote him out from his role as speaker," said political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi.
Another analyst said having been voted into his post by Odinga's party at a time when it held sway in parliament, Marende would want to return the favour.
"There is a real chance he could be fixed by Kibaki's allies if he rules against them, and yet he has to defend the constitution and take a stand," said political commentator Kwamchetsi Makokha.